Thoughts on design, life, and general balderdash by Jonas Downey.

This Ephemeral Year

This Ephemeral Year

In 2010, I rebuilt my website. As is my way, I overloaded the project with too many technology changes, forcing me to learn tons of new stuff before I could do any real work. I also fell into the worst client trap of being perpetually unsatisfied with any design I produced. Nevertheless, I trudged on, and finally decided it was decent enough to launch in March.

One of the new features was the Ephemera section, which was rushed out the door at the last minute, but turned out to be the best addition to the site. The idea was to start tracking little memorable bits of my life — items that would otherwise be lost in time. I have a terrible memory, and I’m finding that my once-reliable Internet footprints are getting more and more fragmented across many different services. Back in the good old days, you could just read your email archives and remember everything that happened.

The Ephemera page does two things. First, it provides simple statistics about my various web activities. Second, it displays a record of my actual, physical life, which means that I’m required keep a minimal daily log of what happens. I had zero confidence that I could maintain even the most rudimentary task on a daily basis, so I kept it dead simple: a one-line text annotation, and a quantitative (0-10) ranking of the day in four categories: Mood, Workload, Sunlight, and Sleep.

So, what did I learn?

  1. Merely logging into a website, choosing four numbers, and writing a one-line sentence every day is incredibly hard to keep up. Feltron has the right idea by "outsourcing" the data collection.
  2. If you miss a day, or a week, you won't remember what the hell happened yesterday — let alone last Tuesday.
  3. Life is filled with countless meaningless interactions and uninteresting chores. Some days memorable things happen, and other days you eat pancakes and clean up cat barf.
  4. It's hard to be quantitative about your life. As an example, should my daily Sleep entry be an exact representation of the number of hours I slept, or should it be qualitative relative to how tired I really feel? It's a judgment call.
  5. Trends confirm that moderation is good. Big surprise, mood plummets as workload nears maximum!

#How it works I’ve been dreaming about doing native/live data visualization on the web for years. The technology is finally coming around; there are numerous libraries and tools available that do in-browser charting, using either SVG or the <canvas> element to render the charts. I tried almost all of these and settled on Highcharts for this project, as it was the fastest way to get some decent output. I combined that with a healthy dose of CSS effects, and there you have it!

View the project here.

Collecting life

My grandfather passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2004. He was a complex and conflicted guy. At times he could be inexcusably harsh, but he also had a sly and silly sense of humor. This Jekyll/Hyde situation left one guessing as to which grandpa would show up on a given day, but I rooted for the sweet, funny family man, and tried to dismiss the cranky curmudgeon when I could.

In his later years, he became increasingly immobile and dealt with chronic pain. He was a great outdoorsman, a navy mechanic, and craftsman in his youth, but years of hard work and the resulting physical damage caught up with him. Still, he kept up with several hobbies even as his body failed.

Joe on a bike
Joe Downey on a tiny bike on a Navy ship.

When I was a kid, my grandpa turned me on to coin collecting. It’s definitely a “young boy and his grandpa” sort of activity and I’ll always identify it that way. These days I have little time to devote to squinting over dimes and looking for mint marks, but I still appreciate the storytelling and historical aspects of collecting. When I see an old coin, I like to imagine who held it in their hand before me, and what was happening the day that chunk of metal was violently smashed into something valuable.

Maybe because he was bored and stuck in the house, or maybe because he simply liked it a lot, Grandpa collected coins until his last day at home. He had established a fairly substantial eBay habit to fill gaps in his collections, but his main late period interest was the state quarter releases. Most curiously (and resourcefully), he chose to organize the quarters in prescription pill bottles, each carefully labeled with the state’s name and mint. For the finishing touch, he engineered custom wooden shelving to hold each one of these pill bottles, with little circular holes for each one.

Quarters in pill bottles
Quarters in pill bottles.

I couldn’t help but love this. For starters, it’s telling that he had so many pill bottles at his disposal, though I hope they weren’t all from his own prescriptions (maybe he made friends with a pharmacist!) He lovingly and obsessively sorted these coins, but for what purpose other than his own amusement isn’t clear — he may have intended to share the collection with the grandkids someday.

Most bittersweet is that the quantity of coins per state decreases markedly over time. The early pill bottles are overflowing, but later states are represented by only one or two coins; the collection whimpers to an end abruptly at state 35 (West Virginia), which was the last quarter released before his death. He had the full intention of completing this collection, as I also have 15 states’ worth of empty, pre-labeled pill bottles that never met a quarter.

These bottles have been sitting in a box in my basement since mid-2005. Mainly, I’ve been too busy to do anything with them, but I’ve also been in a quandary about what to do. I was initially planning to complete the collection, but I decided against interfering with such a vivid snapshot in time.

We could also just cash them in. (Individually, they have high circulation rates, and aren’t in a physical condition to be worth much above their face value, even many decades from now.) My grandpa had a more valuable collection of older coins — which we are also storing — and our storage space is at a premium!

But cashing them in would neglect the object quality of the overall collection. All together, this is his last work. I envision him assembling the bottles, labeling them, analyzing each quarter and placing it in its right spot. I suspect that like any good journey, the process of collection was more entertaining than the end result. Yet the end result (and my imagining of Grandpa’s process) is all I’ve got left.

The question I can’t answer is: do we honor our relatives by keeping up the material things that meant something to them? Or do we simply acknowledge their contextual worth and move along? In a life busy maintaining our own odds and ends, what place do these objects have? If their value consists primarily of nostalgia or memory, then maybe the trash heap (or in this case, the bank) is where they belong. I just wonder if discarding the objects will inadvertently put the memories in the trash too.

For now at least, I still have the bottles. In a box. In my basement.