My covid

For two-plus years, I have been a model of safety, consistency and restraint in the face of the covid-19 pandemic. I was among the first to stock up on supplies for the lockdowns; one of the first to acquire, and rely on, KN95 masks; one of the most cautious in public spaces. I made my family mask up in the most innocuous of situations and maintained a useful wariness everywhere I went. Everyone in my household was vaccinated and boosted at the earliest eligible moment.

We let our guard down when we could—socializing more during the summer 2021 ebb, throwing my son a mask-free bar mitzvah reception in October (negative tests required)—but to this day I am easily identified as the guy with the mask hanging around his neck, putting it back on as soon as appropriate. Never mind that many people are moving on from masks; never mind that in many parts of the country, covid-19 infection rates are fairly low. Better safe than sorry.

Two weeks ago, when we embarked on eight days of outdoor activity in the national parks of the American Southwest, guess who brought his mask everywhere? Me, that’s who. Stuck on a line? Talking to the hotel concierge? Mask up. My younger son joined me, two lonely beacons of caution in an increasingly carefree world. Covid’s still out there, and we weren’t going to be caught off guard.

Well, guess what.

I woke up Saturday morning in Phoenix with a pesky cough. (I also threw my back out in the shower; I don’t believe it was related, although it made things much more interesting.) I had virtually no appetite but chalked it up to the cough and the backache. I flew home uneventfully, masked in my KN95 all the way.

Sunday morning, my cough was worse, and seemed like a sinus infection was brewing, so I popped across the street to my local urgent care. They took my vitals and swabbed my nose. In came the doctor: “What seems to be the problem today?”

“Well, I sometimes get sinus infections, and I have all the signs of one, so here I am.”

“You don’t have a sinus infection,” he said, with just enough levity, “you have covid.”

The ensuing days have been… tiring. I began isolating immediately, although I’d already spent the evening and morning with my family unawares. Urgent care helpfully pescribed me a course of Paxlovid, which Alto pharmacy unhelpfully delivered three hours late, whereupon I headed to my in-laws’ empty house in suburbia to isolate. Too late: on Monday, my wife tested positive, and on Tuesday, my younger son, he of the diligent masking, got it as well. I brought him out of the city to ride out the virus with me.

It’s Wednesday, and the three of us have experienced a full slate of covid symptoms. I will personally remind you, dear reader, that covid-19 is no joke, no matter how many people tell you it’s “just like the flu” and “not a big deal.” We have coped with fever, chills, achiness, congestion, coughs and substantial amounts of fatigue. I think the Paxlovid made a real difference in reducing my viral load, but it still wiped me out, and I’ve had waves of tiredness all day today, my fifth day of symptoms.

“Covid sucks,” my son keeps saying. He has been a model of perseverance and good-naturedness despite (in adult terms) really feeling like shit. I’m on the mend but there’s a ways to go for us all.

Next week, I look forward to leveraging my brief immunity around New York: I’m going to dine out, get a massage, go to WeWork without unease. But I’ll still have my mask around my neck, ready to wear. Because if the last thing I wanted was to get covid-19, the last thing I want going forward is to get it again.

The year in cities 2021

Seventeenth year! Despite not getting on a plane, because 2021, we managed to take half a dozen trips out of town, see several new places, and spend a whopping 58 nights sleeping somewhere besides my apartment. (That’s a remarkably high total for me, and is due largely to our pandemic snowbirding in February.)

Richmond, VA
Palm Beach Gardens, FL *
Savannah, GA
New City, NY *
Pittsfield, MA
Asbury Park, NJ
Newport, RI *
Gloucester, MA *
West Tisbury, MA *

Interesting firsts from this year include: throw my son a triumphal bar mitzvah; drive from New York City to Florida (so NBD we almost did it twice); play tennis on grass, in tennis whites, on the showcase court, at the Tennis Hall of Fame; get an entire new sunroof, headliner and carpet for our car at no cost; work 8-4 with daily tennis or golf for an entire month; run errands on a Citibike e-bike, and on a Revel scooter; bring a dog on the beach at the Jersey shore; eat Rhode Island clam chowder; turn a side hustle into a career opportunity; break 100 on a round of golf (for the first time in several years); find a starfish in a Bass Rocks tide pool (first time in at least 20 years); play paintball (first time in 29 years); get a virus vaccination at the Javits Center (first time ever).

Ring ring ring (ha ha hey)

Basic services are often compromised when living on an island. Living on, say, Nantucket, one probably gets used to losing power or phone service every now and again when the weather gets in the way.

That’s not supposed to happen when the island is Manhattan. So when our phone line went down for two full weeks, without notice or apology from our provider, we decided to switch our service.

This is kind of a big deal in my household. We possess a 212 phone number that we don’t want to lose, so doing a successful number port between service providers is critical. And more notably, until our switch, we still had a phone line served on copper.

I have long espoused maintaining an old fashioned land line. It doesn’t use electricity! In a blackout or an emergency, we can still make calls! (And, yes, tradition.) Heck, even during the signup for VOIP you have to acknowledge that your phone may not work in all circumstances—not true for copper.

And yet, pretty much everyone we call has a cable triple play now, and heck, maybe the police department does, too, not to mention the people and places that dropped their centralized phones entirely, in favor of their cell phones (of which we now have—gah—four. Although the children live on text and video chat, and barely need a number at all, but that’s another blog post).

So we accept the march of progress, and the roughly $700 a year in savings, and we move not-so-boldly into the future. I called Spectrum (with whom I have cable TV and internet service, through a bulk rate building package) and added our phone to it. There was lots of waiting for my rep to cheerfully set me up, then lots of saying “yes” to an automated verification system, then more waiting while Verizon and Spectrum did their number portability dance, and without fanfare, the phone would begin working through the cable modem instead of the copper line.

That led to an additional six weeks of limbo, as Spectrum needed Verizon’s signoff, and Verizon was unsure about our personal signoff, so nothing happened. Secondary prods didn’t help on either side, until we got billed by Spectrum for a month of nonexistent phone service, which prompted an impatient call from me, demanding a refund. That miraculously unclogged the pipes, and two days later, our phone number switched services.

Credit where it’s due, literally: Verizon was helpful after the switch, voiding our last month’s bill, and even sending a $2.93 debit card for a slight overpayment relative to the transition date. Spectrum fixed its extra bill, too.

And now? Our phone seems exactly the same as before, with the added perks of on-screen Caller ID if we’re watching cable TV when the phone rings, and a special ring sequence if the call is from our building lobby. These are not innovations, but they’re new to us, and still amusing. Otherwise, it’s the same old same old.

Until the power goes out, at least.

My career narrative, and some news

“So what do you do?”

I’ve thought about this a lot the past year or so. My career arc has been, from what I’m told over and over again, interesting. I used to be proud of it: “editor, writer, designer, blogger, manager, director, information architect, user experience consultant, marketer, strategist, business developer, and chief executive,” I once wrote, celebrating the variety.

Then I moved from ecommerce marketing and strategy into product management, and from product management into innovation, both in Fortune 500 companies. Suddenly, my resume was opening doors, but my bio left people a little confused. I did my best to refine the narrative—”oh, I build digital experiences, I focus on engagement and retention”—but being in product without a career focused on product was often a blocker.

So I did some analysis, and reflection on my career as a digital native, trying to redefine it: what do I do? I build digital experiences, yes, but what ties together the Kaplan Interactive AOL area and the ESG investing project at Citi? And here’s what I’ve ascertained:

I do what’s coming up next.

Turns out my career lives at the leading edge of the commercialization of the internet. Every few years, I pivot toward a new, important approach to digital communications and business models, with a job title that shifts accordingly. It explains how I wound up at Citibank, as an entrepreneur in residence for Citi Ventures, and looking back, it always has:

1995: the Internet! Interactive websites, America Online, digital publishing, web design, coding. I had an “oh wow” career establishing the online presence of venerable brands, growing sites 10X as people got on the so-called information superhighway, and helping define industry standards while learning what they meant.

2001: user experience. Usability, information architecture, optimization, analytics. I was one of the earliest practitioners and a published author on “website usability,” and I carried that flag for many years. Indeed, it still colors my approach today.

2006: ecommerce. Direct to consumer, acquisition and retention, omnichannel. Selling online was still somewhat novel when I entered the ecommerce arena full time in 2005. I got to champion new arenas to venerable brands again, and I launched one of the earliest DTC presences for a CPG manufacturer.

2013: startup ecosystems. Incubating, accelerating, coaching, advising, mentoring. From a volunteer slot as a “venture mentor” at my alma mater, NYU Stern, I got into startups, helping dozens of founders improve their approaches. I helped one startup win a major competition, joined another for a Techstars accelerator cohort, and continue to work with founders, small business owners and emerging executives.

2019: innovation and validation. Demand testing, in-market experiments, innovation labs. Joining Citibank’s innovation arm, sitting alongside the venture investing team, introduced me to customer-facing new product development. I delighted in the experimentation, and bringing such a strong focus to the customers for whom we were conceiving our products with a Jobs To Be Done approach.

As my residency at Citi wound down, I spent a lot of time thinking about where I’d go next. There were elements of many of my recent roles that I’d enjoyed: building products, putting customers first, exploring new markets, growing businesses and teams. I’m pleased to add another “up next” to this long list:

Supporting independent brands. I have joined the product team at Pantastic, an ecommerce website and growing ecosystem for supporting indie brands. Pantastic’s marketplace showcases hundreds of great brands and their products, and we’re hard at work creating ways to support them with innovative approaches to software and distribution.

Pantastic is also an early-stage startup. After many years working with startups as a coach, mentor and advisor, I’m excited to be in the thick of things, part of a small, growing team with a shared goal and outsize ambitions, where I can leverage many of the different aspects of my experience. I’m already learning a ton—that’s what doing what’s next is all about—and am excited for the ride. Stay tuned.

Twenty years past

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversay of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York. You know this, of course. This weekend, many corners of the internet will be commemorating the occasion.

I have never been one to look back on the event in great detail. Many people do (Anil Dash, for example, every year) and I appreciate their reflections without feeling much need or desire to add my own. I lived it, I wrote down my reactions in real time, and for me, that has been enough.

Speaking of which, my memories of the day and the week were chronicled here on the Ideapad, and I still recommend reading them; the page is both contemplative and raw, and it holds up. Also, for really raw writing about the event, my friend Adam’s firsthand writeup is chastening.

At the newsstand

It was a blazingly hot summer afternoon as I walked the dog. We walked down Broadway, where an electronic sign announced that both interstate lottery jackpots were around a quarter-billion dollars. I felt like daydreaming on my dog walk, so I stopped at the newsstand with the lottery terminal.

“One Mega Millions and one Powerball, please,” I said to the older man working the newsstand.

“One of each?” he said.

“Sure,” I replied, “maybe they’ll both come in.”

He paused a beat while the tickets printed. “One is enough,” he said.

Le Tour 2006

I caught the replay of the end of the 2021 Tour de France on TV today, and remembered that I inadvertently attended the finale of the 2006 tour.

Floyd Landis celebrating his victory.

How does one inadvertently crash the victory lap of the world’s most famous bicycle race? First, one gets sent to Paris on business; then, one flies early, to cope with jet lag and to enjoy an extra day in Paris on the company dime (thanks, Clarins!); then, one chooses to go for a walk on a beautiful summer day, and then starts wondering what all the fuss by the Champs Elysses is about, and keeps walking and watching.

Not speaking any French, I didn’t ask anyone for clarification, I just kept looking around, and I must have spotted a “Le Tour de France” sign that clued me in. I stayed by the Arc de Triomphe for a small parade, then saw the riders do their laps on the Champs Elysses, then meandered with the masses to the main stage, where I was able to see Floyd Landis accept his trophy from a remarkably close distance, maybe 100 feet (30 meters) away from the presentation (albeit from the back, which allowed me to get pretty close, as evidenced here).

It was a pretty wild thing to attend, especially by accident. I’m not a big cycling enthusiast, but I am a bike rider and I know the sport, so I enjoyed this very much, Landis’s subsequent dethroning notwithstanding. I have a hundred or so photos of the afternoon. Who knew?

I liked working for a French company. Nice travel perks. (Usually.)

George Thorogood feat. very special guest Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers

Opening acts create regrets, don’t they? I went to a good amount of rock concerts over the years, and I always, always arrived in time to see the opening act, even though I rarely cared about them. What’s interesting in retrospect is the moments where I should have been more dialed in, and realized what a treat I had seen (Tommy Conwell notwithstanding, although I did buy his first two albums).

For exampe: I saw Sonic Youth and Social Distortion open up for Neil Young in 1990 or 1991 before I knew who either band was. Sonic Youth! Supporting “Goo!” But I thought their set was meh, a wall of guitar noise but not my thing. Sigh. Social Distortion had some catchier tunes (one was on the radio at the time), so I didn’t mind them, and it did have the effect of keeping them in my brain for many years after, so I guess that’s something. Neil Young was good that night which redeemed me a little bit—I believe this was the “Ragged Glory” tour, with Crazy Horse, so the wall of guitar noise just kept on coming.

I went to the H.O.R.D.E. Festival in the summer of 1992, to see Blues Traveler (good call) and the Spin Doctors (guilty as charged). We spent the day and saw all five acts. The middle band was Phish, in their trampolines-on-stage period, which was fine enough, and if I’d paid more attention or smoked pot maybe I’d have caught a 30-year wave, but instead I still listen to “But Anyway” and not the Phish station on Sirius XM.

There were plenty of bands that didn’t matter, of course. Good old Tommy Conwell, for example. Forgotten names like My Sister’s Machine, who opened up for King’s X one time (and whom we ran into at a rest stop on the way home). And some marginally interesting moments, like seeing Angelfish, who opened up for (I think) Live, then broke up, leaving Shirley Manson free to join Garbage, and me free to say I saw her in concert before she was famous; and the lucky ones I actually dialed into and enjoyed, like Living Colour at Shea, opening for the Rolling Stones.

But then, in 2013, I went to a Justin Timberlake concert, and the Weeknd opened, in support of his debut album. We knew at the time that he must have been talented to get picked for that slot, but we thought he sucked. Shows what I know.

The “Feels Like” Forecast

Every now and again, the “Feels Like” Forecast bubbles into my consciousness—via a tweet from someone with a long memory, say, or a time-shifted reference to the day of the week not seeming right, or when a pandemic reduces our collective view of the calendar to mush. It came up again this week, so I thought I’d tell the tale of my one moment of viral internet glory, way back in the twentieth century.

The forecast dates to the era of Yahoo, back when search was useful but not ubiquitous. Yahoo was a success because it catalogued the web, back when it was somewhat feasible to do so. Early netizens saw Yahoo’s well-organized directory of links as a tool and a note of validity, which made Yahoo something of an arbiter of taste; they also had “New” and “Cool” GIF slugs that website owners craved.

In its attempts to be comprehensive, Yahoo didn’t just organize obvious links, like news and sports; they also had fun subcategories for the humor, games and fun that populated much of the early, homemade Internet (capital “i”). One of the pages I frequented was Cool Links, a regularly updated list of entertaining destinations.

At the time, there were a few online zines that were must-reads, including Slate and Salon. The latter carried some comics, including Tom the Dancing Bug, a strip I’d been reading since college. One week in 1997, this appeared:

Tom the Dancing Bug
The original “Feels Like” Forecast. Thanks to Andy Baio for hunting it down.

I thought that was a stroke of genius, and I also thought to myself, That would make for a funny website.

Now, in 1997, web programming was simple and quick; I was building pages daily for work and play. So I whipped up a real-world version of the Tom the Dancing Bug “forecast,” complete with my own predictions (e.g. long weekend? Two Saturdays, no Tuesday). I promised myself I’d update the page a few times a week, and posted it live.

In the pre-social-media era, there were two ways to get the word out: personal website cross-linking and search engines. I posted it on my site and got folks to link back to it, which started to generate traffic. I also submitted the site to Yahoo. And sure enough, they put it on their Cool Links page, complete with yahoo_new gif. (I don’t know that it ever achieved “cool” status, but for the record, those listings got shades: yahoo_cool_rating2)

Yahoo’s site used to showcase new links at the top of the page, and when the Forecast appeared, the floodgates opened. Traffic spiked by a few thousand percent. My site host warned me of an unwieldy surge in daily data transfer. Most amusingly to me, an early ad network called ValueClick invited me to add their banners, and I said sure, why not, and got a check for $127 a few months later. The spike was quick but oh so satisfying.

I kept the site up to date for nearly six years. At one point, my friend David Miller and I pulled together a PHP database and rendering engine, so I could set the forecast weeks in advance, rather than updating the HTML by hand every morning. We also put in a visitor poll. But the site was past peak, and the poll never got more than a few dozen votes, and my ad revenue slowly dwindled to zero.

A few years later, my site host updated their servers and broke our primitive PHP, so we installed a new script that keeps the dates current. That’s the last the site was touched. Around 2009, some coworkers and I relaunched the concept as a Facebook app, but it broke before we built up an audience, and the developers quickly lost interest. Not much has happened of consequence since. The Forecast had all of 327 page views in the 90 days leading up to this post.

But! I am still proud of the “Feels Like” Forecast, for a few reasons, all of them deeply personal.

  • I built a thing, amused myself, and then amused others with it.
  • I managed to create and ride a wave of viral popularity, however early and brief.
  • The site’s HTML is pristine. Look at it! The page renders perfectly and it’s 24 years old. No linkrot here, either.
  • And hey, I made a few bucks. (Very few, but hey!) Those ValueClick ad scripts are still in the page source. Maybe I should turn them back on.

Day 339

We are learning as a society that extended shutdowns of communal spaces lead people to strange and unexpected behavior. We, for example, drove to Florida.

It’s twenty hours on the road, more or less, from the Upper West Side to Grandma and Grandpa’s house down here; they are up north, finishing the vaccination cycle, and the house, which has sat unexpectedly empty this winter, needed some company. So we packed up—two adults, two growing children with overstuffed bookbags, one dog, clothes and supplies and snacks and four laptops—and, nestled into our compact wagon, hit the highway for a day and a half.

I am happy to report that with good kids, good internet connections, new tires and an extraordinarily calm Labradoodle, the drive was not a big deal. With a nice overnight stay in Richmond, we almost enjoyed it (sort of). And it was totally worth it: so far, we’ve missed out on a cold snap, many days of below-freezing temperatures, and roughly two feet of snow, in exchange for sun, space and swimming. (Although Eli is a bit bummed to have missed the snow, which, fair.)

This would have been our winter break destination in normal times, flying down for a week with the family. It’s nice to anniversary the trip, even in modified fashion. Parts of it almost feel normal.

Of course, reality is everywhere, from eating every meal at home to our family drive to the curbside covid testing center on our fifth day in town. (I can only imagine how my kids will reminisce: “Remember the year we drove to Florida in the pandemic? And then we had to get tested, and we rolled our windows down outside some clinic, and we brought the dog for some reason, and all the nurses wanted to pet him, and then Dad wiped Yogi’s head off with an alcohol prep pad in case they got covid on him?”)

We have to go home soon, back to the reality of New York rhythms, apartment life, in-person schooling, and the like. It’s been nice having what amounted to a four-week vacation surrounding work and school, though, and the temporary suspension of our daily urban landscape. Until we head back, though, we’ll be fully enjoying our time in the south. Because, as we now know firsthand, wintering in warm weather while covering one’s responsibilities remotely turns out to be a pretty good plan of action.

(Previously: 1, 2.)