Escape Fantasies

I am a master of the art of the escape fantasy. I have read a long list of books by people who ventured around the world, walked out their door and didn’t turn back, moved to other countries, or took on absurdly ambitious adventures. I am particularly partial to stories of circumnavigations. So when I was visiting a friend a couple of weeks ago, and he asked me what I was doing, it was no particular surprise to me that I was investigating how one might move to Pitcairn Island. He looked over my shoulder, saw the several tabs open, including one with advice on where to moor your sailboat, and said, “Oh! You really are!”

All in a day’s work/play for me.

I have also investigated the regulations for immigration to New Zealand, looked at job postings in various warm climates, and checked how hard it would be to take a trip that stuck as close as possible to the equator. (Pretty hard.) Every now and then, though, I’ve actually indulged. Ran off to India for a month at the end of 2012. (There was planning and a visa, but it took me until 13 days before departure to convince myself that I was really going and purchase the plane ticket.)

This month I decided on Monday evening to go to Boston on Tuesday morning, which involves two days of driving in each direction. That is, not incidentally, why my friend was looking over my shoulder at his house in Massachusetts as I suggested that Pitcairn Island is, “at least more accessible than Mars!” (If anybody from Pitcairn is reading this, I don’t recommend it as a marketing strategy.)

This is not, oddly, an artifact of being an adventurous mother of three in a relatively isolated part of the world.

In 1993, I was 21 years old, sitting in the computer lab at the University of Waterloo when one of my classmates came in. She looked over my shoulder and said, “Click that thing down there.” I did. (Did she call it an icon? Did we have icons in 1993?) Mozilla opened.

“What is it?” I said.

“It’s a network of computers all over the world.”

“What kind of computers?”

“Oh, science labs, universities… newspapers…”

I don’t know whether this next part is true or not, but in my recollection, the very first thing I did when faced with the world’s computers networked together was look at classified ads in Sydney, Australia to find out how much an apartment cost.

I’ve always had a deep-seated curiosity about what it would be like to “be” somebody else. What would it be like to be a person who drives a bus all day? What is it like to sell cars? What is it like to be a professional rock climber? (That’s a thing.) Of course, I can’t actually find those things out. I’ve done all sorts of different things, but I’ve always been me. I am the thing I can’t escape.

I am aware, though, that I’m not the only one. We live in the past and the future, a land of “if onlys” and “maybe I could…” Our shelves (my shelves) are full of other possibilities, other ways of living, other forms of housing, other forms of community. We only know, “This isn’t working. What else might work?” Or, if we are lucky, “This is pretty good, but I suspect that there is something better.” Some better house, some better car, some better relationship, some better life, some better self.

Right now, it’s pretty good. My family rocks. My house is on the water, and the seemingly relentless winter did eventually loose its hold. We can see the Milky Way from our back yard. That’s not nothing. The professional options are somewhat limited in this particular Middle of Nowhere, but I’m working on it. Starting a startup from here seems… problematic, but not impossible. I have considered (and am continuing to consider) what my own professional life might be able to look like if I simply (simply. Ha.) moved (back) to an urban centre, closer to where All the Things happen. Remote software development remains an option that is less disruptive to the rest of my family. There is fantasy, and then there is exploring options.

It is a tricky inner world to navigate, this one in which fantasies and possibilities run up against one another, tumbling over themselves in an effort to prove their brilliance. My husband (my oh-so-patient husband) recalls the alpaca conversations that arose from my midnight musings with nursing infant. And we have pretty much put to rest the recurring cow conversation, which is a fantasy of escaping one kind of trap where we know that the alternative trap is worse. Or harder, or less convenient, or at least comes with obvious and significant costs. Namely, taking care of a cow…

In fantasy land, the mornings are sunny, and the cow is cooperative, and I never get bored, and we can always find somebody to farm sit. In real life, it is cold, and I am usually sleepy, easily distracted, and I would be a terrible cow parent. So the cow in the shed stays in the land of fantasy.

But there is always that point of play. “What would it be like to live in the middle of the South Pacific, a thousand miles from anywhere, with no way of getting out for the next three months?” After more conversations with people who have known me for a while, it doesn’t sound ideal, since boredom and loneliness are two of my primary bugaboos… but I played with it a bit. I have, not surprisingly, also rejected Mars, climbing Mount Everest, and hang-gliding over active volcanoes. I’m still pretty keen on riding camels across the Outback, taking my kids to Bali for the winter, and spending a summer in a yurt, preferably somewhere that it doesn’t rain too much.

It would be easy for me to dismiss my constant imaginings as absurd, and get on with the daily grind. But sometimes, just sometimes, I can get up in the morning and ask, “Is there actually any reason I can’t go to Boston for the next few days?” And everybody agrees, “Nah. We’ve got things covered.” And then it is wise for me to take my wandering mind and walk out the door.

Design Decisions

(Cross-posted from

“Circular buttons are very friendly and approachable.” – Meng To,

I’m reading along in the iOS Human Interface guidelines, and they’re talking about embracing “borderless buttons”, and I think, “How is that different from a link?” and then remember that I didn’t realize I could click on those things when I first encountered them. I ponder the new Google Apps screens on which I couldn’t guess how to do anything without first searching for instructions… And handing my (i)phone to a new user last week, who couldn’t figure out how to make a call, and I think, “Perhaps this seems intuitive because you’ve trained us, and not because it is intrinsically so?”

Now, please don’t get me wrong; I love the gestures on my phone, and the touchpad on my MacBook. I love pushing things around the screen, and pinching things to zoom in and out. Super-powerful. I’m glad somebody figured that out, and I’m glad that there is some standardization… I’m glad they taught me to do that.

But there isn’t a right answer in design, and here is where I fall off the edge.

Math is kind. It stays the same, 30 years later. 300 years later, once proven. Contrast that with the fact that you often can tell what yeara particular palette was created, and you start to get a hint of my… perplexity. Good design is ever-shifting, because it has to relate to people’s current experience of the world. It must evoke, and it must evoke what you intend it to evoke, in the people in whom you intend to evoke it. It is a symphony to my scales, which sound like: Plunk, plunk, plunk… sour note. Plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk! (Possibly with my tongue stuck out in concentration.) I play with the colour wheel, never quite convinced of the palettes I produce. I read articles on the psychology of colour, treatises on typography and fonts, I even draw and paint, but there is no there, there. I know what I like, but I don’t know it until I see it. There’s no music in my head except that which I’ve already heard.

I know the difference because I write. I make my art from words. They build upon something I see, or feel, or experience. A sensation, an image, even a taste: the world shows itself to me in characters and narrative and theories on the nature of reality, but they come as so many words. I have something to communicate about the world, and I resort to these forms which are familiar. Language came to me easily and early, and drawing only late and with much agonizing.

(But I did start doing it, at least.)

Math was simple. Choosing my clothing (Or my binders. Or haircuts. Or bicycles…) was fraught. “You shall be judged and found wanting.” Why should I invest my energy in this instead of something I could actually get right? And so I didn’t bother.

Yet, now that I think about it, how is it so different from writing? There I have practiced, and I have confidence in my ability to communicate, to sing things into existence that live only inside my mind, however imperfectly. The main difference is that I’m coming to this four decades late, and after assuming I couldn’t do it for most of that time.

This is some serious unlearning to do.