On Winter and Payback

I spent nearly an hour this afternoon digging my car out from a pile of snow and slippery ice. I had done the same thing yesterday, though it was less ice and much more snow. Winter in a cold climate tests one’s will to commune. All those hours holed up indoors means that you’re not interacting with people, nature, or the world in general.

This afternoon I was convinced that it was time to get out. Time to persevere (against a zero-degree temperature) and try, at least a little, to get something done. So I packed my side bag and headed out to the gym. That’s when I met my hurdle: digging out the car.

I started the activity the way I normally do: by starting up the engine (because if it’s too cold for that to happen, then there’s no point in the rest) and blasting the defroster. I then brushed and scraped the car, and checked the tires to make sure they were in a good position to free themselves. Everything looked fine, and as I waited for my windshield to fully defrost I thought positively about how I would get out of my spot. I pictured the car rocking gently back and forth and then, almost comically, jumping out of its spot and onto the nice, soft, well-plowed street.

The ease of my vision was not to be in real life. I rocked my car plenty, but managed to get myself stuck and re-stuck three times. Yes, that’s right, I said three times. Each time I ran into my apartment building and grabbed the steel-headed shovel, ran back outside and cleared as much ice as I could away from the wheels. And each time I found myself stuck again, only to repeat the whole process.

Finally, in frustration, I decided to give up. This was enough of a workout for the day. Shoveling snow is not as easy as it may sound. You have to realize that that soft snowy powder that you may be picturing eventually turns into big, heavy boulders of ice and hard rocks. (This is why there are many heart attacks during winter…people forget how difficult it is to shovel snow.) As I surveyed where my car lay, I realized I was blocking an alleyway. So not only was I stuck and ready to give up, but I also had to do something to get myself unstuck.

Luckily, a nice man from the next apartment over had seen my struggle and came outside to offer a hand. After a bit of pushing he was unable to free me from the predicament. We talked about strategy for a few minutes, and then another man showed up. “Easy on the gas, real easy,” he said. Another couple of heaves and ten seconds later my car was free.

When I returned home a bit later after a drive to cool my insides down I found a nice parking spot that should be a bit easier to get out of. As I approached my apartment I spotted a car with its wheels spinning. With the driver accelerating, I pushed the car out of its spot. A few minutes later when I ran to my car to pick up the forgotten shovel, I spotted the man I had pushed out helping yet another stranger. As I passed he waved and said thanks, and I relayed my story of just an hour earlier. We laughed it off and shared a, “yup, it’s finally really winter again” moment.

This is what it’s like to live in Chicago. It’s a city that’s tough as it is soft. It’s a place where people push past and look out for each other. A place where we don’t interact much in the winter, but when it’s needed, people are glad to lend a hand.

This is where I live and despite the tough parts, I love when the gentle, helpful side of this city emerges. It’s like no other place I’ve lived.

Get out and vote

And all you people are the heroes I’ve known
We’re staring off the edge into the unknown
We are not there yet, but we cannot go home
So we cry and we sing
Yeah I remember everything

How for once in our lives
We saw what we wanted and took a bite.
We picked the fruit from the tree, and it was ripe.
And it was ripe, and it was ripe, and it was ripe.”

– Ben Lee, “Ripe”

If you’re American, get out there and vote today. It’s your civic duty. We’re all counting on you. Thanks.

Karen says I haven’t blogged in a long time

And she’s right. I haven’t uploaded pictures in a long time. I’ve slowly stopped putting myself out there, up on the web. I don’t know why. Mostly I think it’s because I’ve been busy. I’ve been spending far too much time on planes. And at work. My brain has just spent too much time running.

I need to idle. I’m ready for a break. In 3 weeks Karen and I leave for Costa Rica. We’re not running away (this time). For now we’re just off for a quick vacation. Any recommendations? We’re looking for good stuff to do.

I’m home this week. It feels good so far. It feels like a real change of pace. Part of me just wants to stay here indefinitely. Travel is hard on the body and soul, and I’m in need of some repair.

Look out for some more substantive posts. Soon enough, my friends, soon enough. Tide yourself over with my sister’s adventures throughout the middle east.

A day at the ballpark

Welcome to Wrigley!
Originally uploaded by josh.ev9.

Today was a great day. Jason and I headed to a Cubs game at Wrigley. Man, that place knows how to turn a relatively slow, boring game into an unforgettable experience. There’s just something about the old fashioned style, the sense of history and cameraderie. You can’t help but feel like a life-long fan.

I think even Jason, a true San Diego Padre fan, felt like a real Cubs fan almost immediately. I could tell not only by the sweet Cubs hat he bought before the game, but also by the two Cubs shirts he left the game with. I’m pretty sure Jason will cheer for the Cubs this October, after all, It Could Happen.

Excellent job Wrigley, and excellent job Cubbies, who beat the Mets 6-2. Have a look at my photos from the game.

I’m gonna go back to chillin with my good friend Jason. Here’s to old friends in new cities. 🙂

Never a City So Real

I’m generally not the kind of person that makes a it a point to read books about cities. Even if I’m visiting or traveling to or even living in an interesting place in the world, I haven’t been known to read about that place.

A few weeks ago I picked up Never a City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz at Powell’s, the local used book store. It was brand new, never read, and only five bucks. The purchase was not a mistake.

If you’ve been to Chicago before, you’ve probably seen all the hot tourist spots: Millennium Park, Sears Tower, Navy Pier. The list goes on. None of these places are mentioned in the book.

What are discussed in the book are the stories of a number of everyday Chicagoans. People from the Far South Side’s steel mills and the West Side’s Soul Food scene. There are stories about the downtown courthouse and Cicero’s politics. These places are not famous, and never will be. But as a Chicagoan, this book was important. It’s a celebration of the everyday style of life that this city affords. We’re not classy or stylish the way New York is, nor are we glitzy like LA. Sure we’ve got all the accoutrements of a major city…but in the end we’re all regular people.

That’s why I love Chicago. And that’s why I loved the book.

Quotable Quote:

Jack loved the city for its ingenuity, as well as for its easygoing demeanor. ‘I can’t see why anyone would want to live anywhere else in the world,’ he used to say. And he relished its tussles, large and small. He hustled, peddling his V-Vax, embracing the underdog, finding ways to reinvent himself—not for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, but rather because life is short and sometimes another path seems enticing and just worth the try.”

It’s -6 Degrees F in Hyde Park

…hereby marking a new personal record in coldness. Did I mention that my car’s wheels froze to the axles yesterday evening? Umm…yeah. Lesson learned: Do not get one’s car washed on a below-freezing day.

ThoughtWorks Chicago Entrance Sign Mockup & Photoshop & Human Performance

This afternoon I threw together a mockup of what the new sign in the entrance of the new ThoughtWorks Chicago office will look like. I worked with Michael, who did the actual design of the sign.

Photoshop is, in fact, quite powerful. I’m becoming really in tune with it, after many years of practice. Photoshop has some really really advanced features that are difficult to understand. I’ve found that once you figure out how to use them, in a one-by-one fashion they become easier to understand. Still, it takes a lot of patience.

In the book I’m currently reading there was some talk about how machines should/could be used to not simply help people do their work, but to take human performance to the next level. That is, computers and technology shouldn’t just be easy to use…they should help people do things they couldn’t do before.

I don’t know if that’s happening today. I see organizations doing things they could not have done without computers, but individuals…not so much. Sure, people do some things with computers that could not have been done otherwise…but on the whole, we’re doing a lot of reading, writing, printing, etc. The stuff we’ve always done, just in a digital format.

Why do I bring this up? Well, today is World Usability Day! Usability is concerned with making tools easier to use and understand. But what I think we’ve lost in all this talk of usability is the idea that we should be helping humans do things that they could not have done at all without the technology we create. It’s not just about being “user-friendly,” rather, we should be “user-empowering.” Right?

Where do you stand on the issue of Usability vs. Human Performance? Weigh in with a comment.

Is Chicago the next hotbed of Digital Design?

Now, I have no hard evidence to prove or disprove my hypothesis, but I get the feeling that there’s a Design tradition brewing in the Chicagoland area. Heck, it may precede my days here. Still, before I came to Chicago, if you were to ask me (and most of my design-minded friends, I’m sure) where the hotbeds of Design are, cities such as New York and San Francisco would probably be the first American cities to be named. After that there are a handful of other cities worldwide that come to mind, but Chicago? No way. No how.

That may all be changing. In the past few months it’s been hard to miss some exciting, new companies with brilliant, forward thinking ideas. It also just so happens that these companies are based in my new hometown.

37signals and Humanized seem to be thinking about both technical and real-life* issues with healthy doses of (big D) Design thinking. Creative, agile thinking has and will keep these companies ahead of the curve. If I have anything to say about it, ThoughtWorks will learn from the Design field as well. We’re great at what we do, but we’re also really good at learning new things. I hope TW will be part of the technology-based paradigm shift that I see happening around me in Chicago. I have no doubt we can make it happen.

* Real-life issues = stuff that matters to everyday, normal, honest-to-goodness, down home, “just like your momma, poppa, grandma, and uncle” people.