Monthly Archives: July 2013

Tell Me When It’s Over

I have been building websites since the late 1990’s.  In fact, it’s a horribly embarrassing fact that archive.org has a snapshot of my site from 1998.  Consider it one of the more “colorful” pieces of my portfolio.

Over the years I minimally improved it, though I maintained my devotion to the almighty animated gif.

In more recent years, I have been teaching web design in Dreamweaver and WordPress.  I built the latest incarnation of my site in Dreamweaver.  After working on a variety of projects over the years building and editing websites at my former place of employment, I feel qualified to add that to my repertoire of skills.  And thus, over the last month or so I’ve found myself delving deeply into designing and building a website in WordPress for my friend Bryce (this is not the website; it’s still a work in progress).

I find the work filled with small rewards, like when I successfully modify a piece of php code to do what I want it to do.  These are surrounded by great periods of anguish as I struggle to customize a sidebar, resize a dropdown menu, and remove an errant bullet.  You know, those things that should be easy but are in fact surprisingly baffling.

I am slowly overcoming obstacles to pull the site into place, but there’s one overwhelming conceptual obstacle that can drag down even my most productive day.  As the child calls forth from the rear bench seats of the automobile, so too do I find myself wondering “Are we there yet?”

At what point can I decide that a project is complete?  On a simple level, a clear statement of the objectives can make it much clearer to determine when those objectives have been met.  This is the reason it’s always important with any contracted project to draft a list of milestones to accomplish.  You always want to make sure that you and your stakeholders (the people who care that the project gets accomplished) are on the same page as to what you’re trying to do.

Space Jam Website

The pinnacle of modern web design.

However, that’s rarely enough.  For instance, let’s say one of the goals is “A professional-looking site with the most recent information about the client’s projects.”  I can see 3 big potentials for ambiguity in there:  What determines whether a page is “professional-looking” or not?  What is the relevant unit of measurement for whether something should be included in the recent information?  Which projects should be included, and how should they be prioritized?  These are all open to debate, and can open up an endless back-and-forth between myself and the client as to whether any of the criteria have been met.

Unfortunately, the client is not the only person with whom I can debate whether the site is complete.  Forgoing well-meaning spouses, professional colleagues, and amateur professionals (“There’s this great font called Comic Sans that you should use”), my biggest issues come from myself.  Perhaps the page is well-aligned, the header image is sharp, and the color scheme is pleasing.  But isn’t there more that I could do to improve it further?  Isn’t there ALWAYS something more I could work on?

This comes up in realms outside of web design as well.  For instance, when I record a song, I often experiment by adding different instruments and using different arrangements.  At some point, though I would like to release the song.  So at what point is the recording completed?

So as not to get trapped in a Zeno-esque paradox in which nothing is moving and nothing is ever accomplished, we have to at some point declare our projects finished.  I already mentioned being as clear as possible in the statement of the objectives.  After that, clear communication with the stakeholders of the project is essential.  Ultimately, I believe it comes down to the integrity of all parties.  I as the web designer have to put forth a good-faith effort to accomplish the goals of the project with as much skill as possible.  At the same time, I have to recognize that there’s always more I could do, and forgive myself for not devoting all the time I could ever have to infinite improvement.  The clients for whom I am working need to be critical in ensuring they are receiving the product they want, while also understanding that the project could go on infinitely.  But the infinite project benefits no one, so it is in everyone’s best interest to allow it to complete at some point.

This is something I have to remind myself as I delve deeper in to the world of building sites for other people.  I must acknowledge that it’s ok for me to finish the site and have it not be the best site ever built by anyone ever.  As long as I hold myself to a high standard and check in with the client along the way to make sure they’re getting what they’re wanting.  I think this is the only way I can actually get anything done without going insane and threatening to turn this thing around and cancel the family vacation.

With that, I am calling this post officially over.

Check please!

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Busking Part 2 – Data Acquired

Two weeks ago, I embarked on an experiment performing in the Market East SEPTA station.  The experience has been a fair amount of fun and a fair amount of frustration, but has overall been a delightful learning experience.  Since I posted about it, I’ve had several requests for a follow up about how the experiment went.  Some were from friends and family who were merely curious about the experience.  One musician friend of mine asked me to sit down with him at a later date to compare our experiences in busking.  A few friends expressed curiosity if it was a viable means of making money, hoping to try it out themselves.  I figured that I learned enough so far to give at least a few answers to these questions, as well as an overview of how everything went down.  I also have some ideas for how to improve on it for the future.

So let’s get to the raw data, first of all.  I’m usually pretty squeamish about telling people what I earned, but since several people have asked if it’s a viable means of supporting oneself, I think giving the actual numbers is important.  Just promise not to judge me for it, and I’ll promise not to judge you for judging me.  Wait, what?

Mon 7/1/2013 Accordion $51.20
Tue 7/2/2013 Tuba $40.64
Wed 7/3/2013 Toy Piano and Accordion $62.82
Mon 7/8/2013 Sousaphone and Accordion $30.52
Tue 7/9/2013 Accordion $3.00

Yikes, that’s a fast trip downhill!  And didn’t I mention that I have a permit to be there for half the month?  Why only 5 days here?

I suppose I should detail my adventures.

Each day I played from 7-9am.  Also, keep in mind, it costs me $9.50 to take the train there and back, so lop about $10 off each day to come up with my net income.

On Monday, 7/1, I went to check in, as per my instructions, at the Passenger Services Desk.  The man behind the counter didn’t in fact ask me to sign in, but instead pointed to one of Market East Station’s 3 designated performance areas.  He actually pointed me to the wrong one, but I discovered that the one I was actually assigned to was a good 40-50 feet from any pedestrian traffic.  Additionally, there were no other performers that time of the morning, so I just set up in the busy area and played for 2 hours.  I detailed that day in my original post.

Net income: $41.20

On Tuesday, I wanted to change it up a bit, so I brought the tuba.  I came back to the same spot as the previous day, and for 2 hours I played everything from Danny Boy to Bad Romance to Chameleon to random improvised grooves.  Even though I made less on this day, within the first 15 minutes, 3 people had put $5 bills in my case.  So someone was appreciating it.

Net income: $30.64

Toy Piano and Tuxedo

Photo by the delightful Samantha Wittchen with moral support from the amazing Rockelpower.

For Wednesday, I wanted to shake things up a bit.  I put on my tuxedo with tails, grabbed the toy piano and accordion (along with a small vase) and set up one again in my usual spot.    I played toy piano and sang for about an hour before moving to the accordion.  It seemed most people were entertained, yet disoriented by my performance.  At one point I was singing Radiohead’s “Creep,” and I got to the line in the chorus “What the hell am I doing here?” and a passing (somewhat rude) woman shouted out “Good question!”

I don’t think I made very much during the first hour.  When I switched to accordion, I seemed to do better.  Of course, it might have been that my good friends Samantha and Rachel chose that moment to visit me and accompany me on egg shakers.  At the end of the day I was shocked to learn how much I had made.  As I was packing up and getting ready to go, a man came up to me without having heard me play anything and gave me a dollar.  I thanked him and played a quick rendition of Natural Woman.  It’s always a crowd pleaser, and apparently, so is the toy piano.

Net Income: $52.82

When I got home, on a whim I decided to search twitter to see if I made any impact, and was excited to see a few positive tweets:

Tweets: Market East station smells like fresh pizza while the sounds of Radiohead come from a musician's accordion. Good morning, Wednesday.#philly 3 Jul 3 Jul Today, accordion player is dressed in tuxedo, playing mini children's piano, on a table top w/ a vase of fake flowers #septa #onlyinphilly 1 Jul Accordion player in Market East station playing B52s Rock Lobster. Surreal Monday start. 1 Jul Shout-out (Tweet-out?) to the guy at Market East playing "Everything In It's Right Place· by Radiohead ... on an accordion.Things looked to be going well so far.  I was making some money and making an impact.

On Thursday, it was July 4th and I had a parade in the morning, so I couldn’t go to the station.  I probably wouldn’t have made much anyway, since most of the commuters would be gone.  I planned on coming back on Friday to play solo Sousa marches on the sousaphone.  However, between Wednesday and Friday I injured my arms in a freak weightlifting accident (the freak being that I was actually lifting weights).  I decided to heal up, and skip Friday.  I also figured that I wouldn’t make as much, as a lot of people would take a 4 day weekend.

By the following Monday, I was healed up and ready to go.  I brought the sousaphone and accordion (no small feat on the train!) and started out by playing the aforementioned marches on the sousaphone.  Despite my red white and blue attire, this seemed to garner little attention.  Well from the commuters anyway.  I unfortunately attracted a different attention.

A SEPTA employee came by about 45 minutes into my set and asked to see my permit.  I showed it to him, and he told me I was in the wrong location.  I told him no one was in my current location, and I had come here because there was much better foot traffic.  He told me that this wasn’t allowed even though no one had taken that area and time slot and that I would have to move to the remote and distant space.  After a little pleading on my part, he told me I could stay for the day, but “I’ll be back tomorrow.”  I finished out the day on accordion, but for some reason made much less money for the day.  I was however given 2 SEPTA tokens among my tips for the day.  I thought maybe someone was trying to tell me to leave, though they might have wanted me to come back afterwards.  Or maybe 2 different people were telling me to leave.

Net Income: $20.52 + 2 SEPTA tokens

SEPTA TokensResigned to my fate, I decided to try out the remote spot the following day.  Before I played a note, a different SEPTA official came over and told me that I was now playing in the “quiet” part of the station, and that if I was too loud he would make a complaint.  This did not bode well.  Neither did the construction going on 10 feet in front of me (but still 30 feet from the nearest foot traffic).  After playing for an hour, I saw I had made $3.  I decided to cut my losses and head home.

Net Income: -$7.00

After my negative experience, I called the SEPTA performance permit phone number to see if they would change my permit to my original area, but I couldn’t get a live person and received no response to my messages.  Rather than lose money the rest of the week, I decided to wait until the following month and request the spot I really wanted this time around.  Which I just did a few moments ago.  Let’s see what happens.

So let’s look at the numbers for a second and see how I did.  On the days in my preferred performance space, I made an average of $36.30 across 2 hours, making my hourly rate $18.15.  That’s nothing to scoff at, especially when combined with the free practice and exposure.  Knowing that I made more playing accordion and toy piano (or maybe more when I was playing theatrically), I could probably up those numbers.  I have to take into account that some people might have given me money the first day because I was new and a novelty at first. However, I don’t know for sure.  This calls for…. MORE DATA!

Now, let’s say I can up it to an average of $40 per day.  Since I only get half the month to play, that spreads across 2 weeks or 10 working days, bringing me $400 per month.  That’s really not a huge amount, especially for how much I’m playing.  As a musician, though, we earn our livings across many different income streams.  When it comes down to it, there’s not much else I could be doing to make money from 7-9am, and to be making close to what I made hourly at my full time job doing something I love, that works just fine for now.

Provided my permit is renewed, I plan to continue experimenting with instruments, song choices, clothing choices, miscellaneous accoutrements, and anything else I can come up with.  I hope to settle into a nice groove and continue to make connections with the people whizzing by.  As with any experiment, there may come a time when I decide to pull the plug and find uses for my time that are more worthwhile.  Until that moment, you can find me during the first half of the month from 7-9am at Market East right next to the Gallery.  Come by and listen, shout out a request, tweet the moment to your friends (@neonandshy), or just say hi.

Fractal Actions

When I decided to leave my full-time job to pursue a freelance career, I was under no illusion that I would be taking it easy.  Fortunately, my mental preparedness for this fact has helped me though my first incredibly busy week.  I had multiple shows across the week, I had a schedule in place for my day-to-day tasks, and I woke up earlier than I did while I was at my previous job.  I also found the time to exercise, entertain people at a party, and be with the important people in my life.  One definite goal is to find the balance between assigning too few tasks to get anything done, and assigning more tasks than I can possibly complete.  I have a feeling it will take some time, but I’m up for the challenge.  Overall, this week was exhilarating and exhausting.

I could go on and on about the exhilaration (and believe me, I will another time), but I want to focus on the exhaustion for a bit.  This wasn’t the sort of exhaustion I’m accustomed to where I would wake up at 6:30am, and get back to my house around midnight.  That is unpleasant, but I know how to push through it and replenish the energy I need in the spaces I can find it.  This one caught me off-guard.

While I wouldn’t say I’m the most active individual, I do have a daily and weekly yoga practice.  Despite this, I’ve been increasingly having issues with pain in my back and my shoulders.  I feel like it comes with the territory of playing instruments that are heavy to carry and have to be worn around your shoulders, but I also thought that perhaps I was not maintaining my strength enough to carry and play them.  So Wednesday, after I played a delightful morning set at the Market East SEPTA station, I went with the lovely Katie (aka Gertie McShmiggles) to lift weights at her gym.  Having learned all the details of weightlifting 20 years ago in high school, I figured I’d have no problem jumping right back in.

This plan seemed to be going beautifully until late Thursday night when I could no longer use my arms.  My biceps were burning at anything other than a 100 degree angle.  I decided to cancel my busking the next morning for fear that I’d do more damage to myself by carrying and playing any of the unwieldy instruments I am blessed to play.  I spent most of the weekend icing my arms, and fortunately the pain subsided by the end of the weekend.  I’m no scientitian, but it seems pretty clear to me that I had overused muscles that had been less accustomed to activity, and I was now paying the price.  The price was pain on the surface level, and debilitation on a much more frightening sub-level; I can’t afford to be out of commission in the most productive phase of my life.

Vishnuba Dan

Vishnuba Dan has the correct number of arms.

It wasn’t just arm muscles, though.  While performing at the train station last week, each day I had brought a different instrument.  On Tuesday, I brought my tuba, and played a series of solo tuba improvisations without a break from 7-9am.  That evening I had a rehearsal from 8-10pm on the sousaphone.  On Wednesday I played a house party on the sousaphone, and on Thursday, I played an Independence Day Parade.  I felt fine playing-wise at both of those shows   On Saturday night, I had a show from 9pm-1am, and from the very start I could tell something was off.  I was having trouble centering my sound, which resulted in many chipped notes.  I also had difficulty moving smoothly through my range, and my tone was somewhat brittle.

I had to reach far back to remember the last time I had experienced this, and I realized it was when I was overpracticing.  It turns out that my arm muscles aren’t the only ones that can get fatigued.  My lip and face muscles were over-stressed from playing too much (and probably too loud) across the week.  I had to tell myself to back off and practice low quiet notes for a while.

All this comes back to the balance I mentioned earlier: the balance between assigning too few tasks to get anything done, and assigning more tasks than I can possibly complete.  In addition to this being important on the macro level of creating my schedule, each individual component of my schedule is subject to the same need for balance.  The big difference is that instead of just not accomplishing what I’m trying to do by scheduling too much, I can actually go through with it and really hurt myself.

When I experimented with not having a full-time job back in December, I made sure to incorporate rest and recreation into my schedule:

A couple of important things in here.  First of all, note that I’m planning “rest” in here.  This is partially because I am on vacation, and I do need to rest and recuperate from work, but also because I know that resting is an important part of my life, and something I at least need permission to do and at most need to plan into my day.  There will be plenty of times when rest is not an option; while it is, I need to make it happen, as I believe firmly it is vital to focused productivity.

Once again, I need to take this approach not only with the process of scheduling itself, but with the activities and projects that I’m actually scheduling.  If I’m going to try weightlifting again, I need to find contentment with smaller weights and more rest in between.  I need to find the time to practice relaxation on the instruments I play.  I need to find the space in each of my activities and goals that will allow me to improve without limiting myself.

I’ve got a handle on pacing myself on the macro level of scheduling, but I need to take it several levels further.  A fractal is a recursive structure in which each component is a smaller version of the same initial seed.  I need to take my patient and self-aware approach and recreate it in each of my other activities.  Vishnu may have enough arms to play the tuba and accordion, lift weights, and design a web site, but I’m no deity.  It’s time I stopped holding myself to godlike standards and started allowing myself to proceed at a pace that works for me.

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