On the Holiday Season

When people say the “holiday season” they mean Christmas. Thanksgiving kicks off Christmas season and New Year’s Day marks its end. If you don’t celebrate Christmas it can be a strange time of year.

Though I came from a Christian background Christmas was never about anything religious. Occasionally I went to midnight mass with my stepmother but Christmas was about presents and food (shoutout to divinity, the world’s best candy and to my mom who makes it better than anyone). I get that it comes from a religious place but my experience of it has always been secular. So I never gave any thought to religion during the holiday season while enjoying the lights and food and presents and music during December.

And then I converted to Judaism.


After my conversion I thought about Christmas a lot. Not because I missed it, but because I realized just how much you can’t escape it. You can’t move an inch in middle America during the months of November and December without being hit with some sort of Christmas decoration or greeting. Truly there is no way to opt out of Christmas, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

A couple years ago a bank teller wished me merry Christmas and I said “It’s not my holiday but if it’s yours I hope you have a great one.” I thought it was a pretty good response but it made him mad. It didn’t matter to him that I didn’t celebrate Christmas. It didn’t matter that I’d actually hoped for him to have a nice holiday. He just wanted me to participate in the ritual of wishing merry Christmas and was offended when I wouldn’t play. I was offended by his being offended.

Last year I took a different approach. As Christmas neared I wore necklaces with larger and larger stars of David. By the time December 25 rolled around we were almost to Flavor-Flav clock levels of Magen David-ness. It was awesome in its silliness. Well meaning people who noticed it would wish me a happy Hanukkah. Hanukkah overlapped Thanksgiving last year though so I had to tell them that Hanukkah ended weeks ago. Their faces dropped like I was the Grinch who stole all the holiday spirit. But they were committed to holiday greetings so eventually most said “Well, happy new year then.” It was their third choice in holiday greetings to be sure, but I think it made them feel better to say it.

The Love Below

Perhaps it’s because I’m so completely settled and comfortable in my Jewishness that I don’t think of Christmas season as my adversary anymore. And I don’t feel like a “bad Jew” for enjoying the secular aspects of the season.

Perhaps it’s because I have a nephew now. Christmas is his holiday and I want him to have a wonderful one.

Or perhaps I’ve watched Love Actually so many times I have completely absorbed the movie’s vision of a 100% secular and 100% awesome Christmas season.

I’m not sure what to credit with my change in attitude. What I am sure about is that this is the first year in many years that I’m enjoying Christmas music. I noticed that all the Christmas music I used to love has absolutely nothing to do with anybody being born in a manger. I also noticed that a whole lot of the Christmas music I used to love was written by Jews. There’s something deliciously fun about listening to Christmas songs written by Jews that have absolutely nothing to do with the religious catalyst of Christmas.

So here is my “Hanukkah and Secular Christmas” Rdio playlist. There are far more Christmas songs than Hanukkah songs on the list which makes sense when you consider that Hanukkah is actually a very minor holiday. American Jews make a big deal out of the festival of lights so we’ll be more integrated into American society. I mean what’s this time of year in America without a holiday? And Hanukkah food is pretty freaking awesome.

Of course this doesn’t mean that I’m not still mad that everything except Heine Brothers is closed on Christmas Day. I got errands to run yo.

Turn the Page

What’s Up

Working for ThinkUp over the past 10 months has been such a joy. ThinkUp is a fun app that adds a little more meaning to your time online. The company, founded by Gina Trapani and Anil Dash, runs on ethical business practices and true respect for customers. Seriously, ThinkUp respects its users and everyone who works on ThinkUp tries every day to make it even better for them.

But building a sustainable business is an uphill battle, even with all the good qualities that ThinkUp has. It’s a battle filled with challenges and hard choices. ThinkUp has just reckoned with some of those hard choices and myself and some of my very cool colleagues have been…let go? Laid off? Set adrift? There are really no nice ways of saying “the company has to cut costs so you don’t have a job anymore even though we still love you and you still love us” but that’s the situation.

Outside of building Menu and Hours, being part of ThinkUp has been the best work experience of my life. My job at ThinkUp didn’t have an official title other than “Helping ThinkUp members*” so I handled support requests, wrote documentation, had conversations on Twitter, wrote blog posts, did product testing/QA, lobbied for new features and generally represented the interests of our community of users. I was given the freedom to do whatever I could to make ThinkUp users happier, including giving lots of opinions on how the product should grow and change. For someone who loves technology and really enjoys helping people that’s pretty much a dream job. Add to that, the fact that my knowledge, experience and ideas were all shown the utmost respect and well, you can understand why I’m sad to no longer be on the ThinkUp team.

(*though Anil and I did agree on “Community Manager” as shorthand)

What’s Next?

I don’t know what’s next. I’ve been really lucky that over the past decade or so all of my jobs, freelance gigs and various projects have come to me through networking, recommendations, people experiencing my work or by my own hustle. So when someone asked me for a resume this week I kind of froze. I haven’t written a resume in years. My work has spoken for itself or people I’ve worked with have spoken for it. I feel like as a general web and communications geek I’m singularly ill-fitted to condense my work into a resume. Unless of course someone asks me to present a resume written primarily in emjoi. That would make sense.

While putting off even attempting to write a resume I’ve been responding to friends on Twitter and email who have asked what it is exactly I do and what kind of work situation I’m looking for.

My friend Tiffany asked if I’d like to get back into technical writing (the work I first did a million years ago). I said I’d definitely be cool with that and “ I *think* I’m pretty good at writing documentation & writing explanations for tech things in ways that muggles can understand.” My now ex-boss Anil confirmed that I am in fact pretty good at writing documentation & explanations for tech things in ways that everyone, not just advanced users, can understand.

I told my friend Kevin that I’m a “web technologist who will be the best advocate for your users and nicest point person for your community, all while writing the most clear and helpful documentation your product has ever had.”

Back in 2011 I drew a venn diagram of the kind of work I wanted to do and it’s still accurate:


I am open to part time and short term gigs. I am open to freelance situations. I am open to opportunities both at startups and “more established” companies. What I’m looking for most though is to be proud of the work I’m doing and who I’m doing it for. I want to work on products that I’d use myself or be happy recommending to friends and loved ones. I want to work for a company that doesn’t exist just to make money. I want to work for a company that strives to add a little delight and usefulness to the world through those products.

I’m based in Louisville and relocation isn’t an option so remote gigs are aces.

If you have leads on projects or jobs I’d be right for I’d really appreciate hearing about them. Drop me an email (mj AT michellejones.net) or let me know what’s up on Twitter (@michellej).

Earnest, Cheesy Section of Our Program

I’m an internet nobody in Louisville, Kentucky and I just spent the better part of a year working for two of my internet heroes on a very cool app. That’s the power of the web and I’m so lucky to be part of it. When I first put Gina’s personal blog into Bloglines (yes, I have been on the internet that long) or when my blog first appeared on Movable Type’s list of recently updated sites, I couldn’t have imagined getting to work with Gina and Anil. Thanks for the opportunity y’all, it was awesome.

And Music to End On

I totally chose the title for this post just so I could share my favorite Bob Seger song.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

When the app I built, Menu and Hours, was released a couple years back it only got one piece of criticism that really surprised me: it wasn’t friendly to visually impaired users and it really should have been. The app made it dead simple to access the location, hours and menu information of local restaurants. The app was a direct response to restaurant websites that were image heavy or built in flash or only had PDF menus. As a non-visually impaired person those things were very frustrating to me, particularly on mobile devices. But imagine how frustrating it must be for those who rely on voiceover technology, at least partially, for mobile experiences. I didn’t imagine it. It wasn’t something I thought about at all. That was a tremendous failure on my part.

I was very lucky that a kind person affiliated with the American Printing House for the Blind pointed out how valuable the app could be to visually impaired users and how easy it was to update the app to make it friendly to those users. So I updated the app and it was a moment of such joy. It truly felt like “I make silly things on the internet but this is something good, this can help people.”

Menu and Hours died over a year ago (tldr: spent all the money I’d earned with the iOS version building an Android version that didn’t come close to recouping expenses) so thinking about it is bittersweet for me. But I’ve been reading a lot about diversity (or the lack of) in the tech industry lately and this incident keeps coming to mind. I think diversity for diversity’s sake is a good thing. I think it’s generally a better, more fulfilling experience to engage with people who are not exactly like you in terms of race, religion, geography, political opinions, sexuality, sports team affiliations, etc. I also think it’s just the right thing to do to acknowledge and respect these differences. But as far as diversity in tech goes I just keeping thinking about Menu and Hours. Specifically I keep thinking: I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that the accessibility standards we used building Menu and Hours weren’t perfect. I didn’t know how a visually impaired person would actually use Menu and Hours in the real world. I didn’t know why the way we had done a couple things were problematic. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

When I finally did know, I made Menu and Hours a better product. I’m proud of that. I think about how many other apps could potentially be made made better if the teams building them were pulling knowledge from a wider pool of backgrounds and experiences. I’m ready for tech at large to be more inclusive and welcoming but really I’m ready for the awesome stuff that will come out of it.

On Marriage

“When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers.”
6th Circuit April DeBoer, et al v. Richard Snyder, et al Opinion

I’ve been monogamously pair bonded with Belinda since I was 19 years old. I’m 38 now. This is not a new “social issue.” This is my life. For over half of that life I have loved, made a home with, cared for, been cared for, shared finances and real estate with another person. But according to the vast majority of voters in Kentucky that relationship doesn’t mean anything. And according to the 6th Circuit majority opinion, issued today, those voters should keep on getting to decide that my relationship is less than.

Better in this instance, we think, to allow change through the customary political processes, in which the people, gay and straight alike, become the heroes of their own stories by meeting each other not as adversaries in a court system but as fellow citizens seeking to resolve a new social issue in a fair-minded way.
6th Circuit April DeBoer, et al v. Richard Snyder, et al Opinion

Better for who? Certainly not better for gay couples. While we are waiting for the majority of voting straight people to decide that their relationships aren’t superior to our relationships I wonder how many spouses will be separated during medical emergencies because they live in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage? How many will not automatically inherit property when their spouse dies? How many will face significant financial burdens because they are excluded from the tax and insurance benefits of marriage?

I wish you could understand what this feels like. Actually I don’t. I don’t wish this feeling on anyone.

Our Jewish wedding contract
Our Jewish wedding contract
I don’t wish for you to know that your love, commitment and the very core of your being (make no doubt, loving Belinda is the very core of who I am) is deemed less than other people’s love and commitment. Not because it is actually less in any way but because of some people’s interpretations of translations of the bible. Yes, I said interpretations of translations of the bible. This is where I laugh bitterly and point out that I was married by a rabbi who knows the bible in Aramaic. And that I was married in a synagogue surrounded by a whole lot of Jews (and some Christians) who absolutely support my right to be married.

I don’t wish for you to know what it feels like to have judges say that it would be completely ok for voters to again and again and again determine that you are less worthy of respect than straight people. Part of respecting people is respecting the spouse they spend their life with.

I don’t wish for you to know how it feels to be financially punished for loving someone. I had to pay for power of attorney and health care surrogacy documents to make sure I can be with and care for my wife when she has surgery. That’s a dollar and cents financial burden slapped on me for loving and caring for another human being.

I don’t wish for you to know what it feels like to have judges say that if, someday, straight voters decide that I’m not less worthy of respect and love, then I’m supposed to consider those straight people “heroes” in “our stories.”

I don’t wish for you to know how it feels to be betrayed by your home. I was born in Kentucky, have lived the vast majority of my life in Kentucky and have moved back here after every job or education situation made me leave the state. If our governor hadn’t fought against marriage equality my marriage would have been recognized in Kentucky earlier this year. When no less than the governor sues to keep your marriage from being recognized it’s awfully damn hard to feel anything but betrayed.

I don’t wish for you to know how any of this feels. I wish I didn’t know how any of this feels.

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer

Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”
– Nina Simone “Mississippi Goddamn”

“Mississippi Goddamn” was written about racial prejudice and the discrimination and violence that stem from it. My inclusion of the quote here is not meant in anyway to minimize that struggle that is still being waged nor to appropriate its language and culture. But Nina Simone’s words and voice speak to me and speak for me like no other. I cried the day she died because her voice being gone from the world left me with a deep aching sadness. And at this moment, those words from “Mississippi Goddamn” are the truest words I know.

Watching Geese on a Rainy Day

It’s raining as I sit in a coffee shop staring at a blank document. I look out the window. Across the road is an empty field. It’s an odd empty field. On one side it is bordered by the interstate. On another the parking lot of a boxy office park. On the third, way off in the distance, houses. The fourth is the busy road the divides the field from the coffee shop and shopping center.

There’s a marshy area in the field that is currently occupied by maybe 30 geese. Geese are intimidating creatures so it’s nice to watch them from a safe distance. I notice that none of the geese are moving. They are just standing, in the rain, and all of them are facing the same direction, North. Is that the direction the rain is coming from? Or the direction the rain is going to? Or is it the direction of home and the feeling or scent of the rain reminds them? I don’t know but I find it fascinating.

The geese are not still, exactly. Heads occasionally bob, some bodies wave from side to side but they all look in the same direction. I watch for several minutes and then finally turn back to my work.

After some time the light from the window is noticeably brighter, the rain has stopped. I look to the field and the geese now appear to frenetically busy. Individuals are turned toward every direction. Heads are plunging into the marsh. Backs are being scratched with beaks. A game (or battle) of follow the leader with four competitors seems to be taking place.

I suppose I could Google why geese might stand in a uniform cluster, all facing the same direction in the rain. But it’s so much better to imagine possibilities. So much better to just enjoy observing instead of necessarily knowing.

And a fine vacation it was

Last week my wife and I traveled to Washington DC to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We’ve been to Washington several times over the past few years but my wife was usually attending conferences so she didn’t get to experience much of the history and cultural experiences that make DC such a cool place to visit. This time no one was working and we just ran around town, visiting museums, seeing friends and indulging in good food and a healthy amount of cocktails.

We are fans of the Kimpton hotel chain. Last year in Baltimore we stayed at Hotel Monaco so the Hotel Monaco DC was a natural choice for this trip. Because we were celebrating our anniversary the hotel very very kindly upgraded us to an exceptional suite. The suite was larger than the first apartment my wife and I shared a million years ago. The hotel also gave us a bottle of champagne and the staff was utterly delightful in every way.

We didn’t visit nearly all the monuments and museums I’d hoped to on this trip. I think I’d forgotten how much I like to linger in museums and how much time that takes.

I never studied art history so my knowledge and appreciation for art comes from a place of instinct and feeling instead of one of knowledge and history and technique. By that I mean I’m mostly familiar with the big names that everyone knows: Monet, Cezanne, Rembrant, Picasso, van Gogh, El Greco, Da Vinci, etc but not much more in terms of classical art. In my limited travels I have seen several van Gogh paintings in person and they live up to expectations. And I’ve visited the National Gallery of Art several times so I’ve seen works of many of the masters before. For this visit only the West building of the National Gallery was open. Since trying to cram in both branches wasn’t an option I allowed myself to linger even more than I normally would. With the luxury of time I was able to really spend time with each painting that appealed to me and each painting that I thought should appeal to me. I was able to read the descriptions and printed notes available. It was really lovely.

What I found, after spending all that time, was:

  • impressionism is still my favorite style
  • Monet appeals to me but not as much as I thought
  • I like the Rembrandt school very much but of all the works representing it in the National Gallery I liked Rembrandt’s works least. I really need to educate myself more and expose myself to more works by the Dutch masters. I found them very compelling.
  • I really don’t care for Cezanne
  • I am absolutely enchanted by the works of Pissarro. I’d heard of him, naturally, but hadn’t really experienced his work. Like the Dutch masters I want to learn far more about him and his work. What I saw of his work was the most compelling art I encountered on this visit

Restaurants/Cafes you should check out if visiting DC soon:

  • Dangerously Delicious Pies OMG OMG OMG this place is amazing. The last three photos above are from Dangerously Delicious. We stumbled on it by accident after coming to the neighborhood specifically to visit the Jewish deli Irish pub combo Star and Shamrock.
  • H Street Coffee If you are in the Dangerously Delicious Pies neighborhood this quaint little coffeehouse is just a few doors up. It feels like what coffee shops felt like back when I was in college. Small, homey, plenty of room for you to study or read, stereotypical coffeehouse music playing.
  • Busboys and Poets I lost track of the number of people who recommended this place but all of them were right to do so. We went to the 14th & U Street location. Great diverse and very vegetarian friendly menu.
  • Ted’s Bulletin is home to the housemade pop tarts in the photos above. They were good but I must confess that the sprinkles on them took away some of my joy. I’d much prefer it had been plain or had icing but it was delicious all the same
  • We didn’t actually eat at District Doughnut but it was such a charming shop in such a charming neighborhood I wanted to suggest it. I hope to visit there next time we are in DC.

Public, Private and The Culture In Between

A few weeks ago a conversation I was involved with on Twitter became a news story. The details of the conversation aren’t really important but the gist of it is the Louisville Orchestra made an odd scheduling decision, I commented on it and then commented again when the LO didn’t respond. Because the conversation took place between two public accounts on Twitter other people saw and joined in the conversation. That’s the way Twitter works and it’s great. As the conversation continued and the LO finally responded quite flippantly a local arts reporter got interested.

The reporter reached out to me on Twitter for a comment on the story. I had no interest in being part of her story in any way. I also didn’t want to be rude. It seemed like common courtesy to respond to the reporter in private and decline to comment, so that’s what I did. Instead of saying something like “Michelle Jones declined to comment” the reporter copied and pasted the private message I sent her.

To recap: she asked me (through her public Twitter account) to speak with her so that my words could be included in her story, I privately declined to do so (through a Twitter Direct Message between just she and I). By publishing words that I expressly chose to be private the reporter disregarded wishes that I thought were perfectly clear.

When I voiced my displeasure about the reporter’s actions I was scolded and told “unless you expressly say ‘THIS IS OFF THE RECORD’ you have to assume a reporter will publish everything.” Aha, I see now. And I 100% disagree.

I couldn’t explain exactly why I disagree so strongly until my friend Sarah tweeted about a conference she was attending. She said:

“I’m not going to live tweet much of this conference because there’s not a culture of tweeting & people don’t realize statements [are] public”

There it is: culture. And secondarily: respect.

The statements Sarah would be hearing at the conference were in fact public but posting everything she heard would be a violation of the conference community’s standards of accepted (and expected) behavior. Though no one had said “THIS IS OFF THE RECORD” she knew that people were not expecting and did not want their every word posted. She respected the people, the environment she was in and its culture. The statements she chose not to post exist somewhere between public and private.

Now would be a good time to mention that the reporter in my situation not only published my private message but she also “outed” a friend I’ll call Jules. Jules doesn’t list her real name anywhere on her Twitter account nor does she ever mention, by name, the company she works for. Since Jules participated in the same conversation I did the arts reporter decided to play investigator. She dug around until she found some mention of Jules’s real name. From there she hit LinkedIn and found the company Jules works for and her exact job title. The reporter published all of those details in her story.

So let’s talk about culture and respect. To my mind the reporter completely misunderstands the culture of Twitter. To a “Twitter native” (for lack of a better term) it would be obvious that a direct message shouldn’t be published in a public forum. It would also be obvious to someone immersed in Twitter that if someone doesn’t use her real name on her account she doesn’t want those two things to be connected. Essentially: “if it’s on Twitter it might be public but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for publication.” It might be somewhere between public and private.

Seemingly the reporter was observing the culture of print journalism. As best as I can tell that culture’s standard is that the reporter feels good about publishing any piece of factual information she can dig up. Essentially: “if it’s public I can print it.”

These two cultures are fundamentally different. If a reporter is going to mine Twitter for story ideas shouldn’t she learn and respect the differences? I think so.

Hello world!

Through user error (more on that in a minute) the database that held all of this site’s content, even the really old shit that wasn’t public anymore, was deleted. Yep, deleted. Not renamed, not misplaced, not out of reach. Deleted. Gone, forever. Technically I could have paid my host to retrieve it all from an old backup but I wasn’t compelled to do that. In fact other than one giant gulp when I realized what had happened I wasn’t upset about the loss of this site’s content. The vast majority of the content had been out of view for years. Even more of the site’s old content is actually still in a Moveable Type backup on my hard drive and in the cloud. I guess what I’m saying is that I still care about the early years of my content and since I’ve rebuilt this site I clearly care about my future content, but the middle years? Much like middle school they’re best left vaguely remembered, not documented and referenced.

While I’m not mad that the data is gone I am mad that my host made it so easy to make the error that led to deletion. It’s such a poor user experience that led to clicking the button that deleted the database. The button didn’t say delete by the way, I thought I was creating a new db with a different name. Instead I was deleting and replacing the existing one. There was no “are you sure you want to delete database X?” Just poof, gone. So while the blame for the deletion is all mine I really do wish my host hadn’t made it so easy for user error to cause the complete loss of content. But if I think about that I have to think about how I haven’t performed my own proper backups of this site in ages. And that’s no fun so let’s just move on.

In any case here we are, a new beginning.