Okay, all you AIR MASTER fans out there. Read it and weep: this is the patch my wife put on my black skull cap. She hand-embroidered it, free-hand. I know, it’s amazing!
For all the mind-numbing busywork of starting a new business, certain tasks come with real emotional rewards. That’s certainly the case in choosing this new business card holder. Like practically every other piece of start-up research, this one took time and shoe leather. After visiting four physical shops and nearly two dozen Etsy stores, I finally settled on this handsome handcrafted wooden piece.
What clinched it for me was the manufacturer, Inelastic Goods, is a one-man operation based right here in Madison. Steve, the creator of the line, delivered the item himself, eager to show me six or seven different models. I jumped at the chance to buy two additional cardholders at a discount.
I’m keeping the white oak for myself and have bought two of the darker wenge wood models for gifts. The wenge wood model is striking in the contrast of two dark planes sandwiching a lighter maple side piece. The white oak does the opposite, playing up the continuous grain and color, as if the box were carved from a single block of wood.
All models come with a magnetic closure that clicks shut oh so satisfyingly. I catch myself playing with it constantly. Plus, beyond the visual delight of the hand-finished hardwoods, Steve’s execution of the clean, minimalist design is unparalleled. Each piece feels stunningly smooth in the hand, the joinery, edges, and curves so silky and organic.
By day, Steve works as an engineer for the state of Wisconsin. On his own time he exercises his entrepreneurial spirit, refining his craft, streamlining his processes and tools, with the aim of not only perfecting the product, but boosting productivity. His woodshop has become so efficient, he’s recently made good on a private order of sixty business cardholders to a private individual.
Head over to Steve’s Etsy shop for a look at the different models:
Ah, researching office equipment–one of my favorite pastimes. (Not!) I took my time with this one, going back and forth with my decision tree (for instance, shifting my budget from $200 to $600, and back again). I ultimately ordered from Staples.com, so I could return any lemon locally. That’s a sign of me bracing against all the ways a purchase like this can go wrong.
I’m happy to report my good fortune: not only do I have my new color printer up and running, but I found Dell customer support highly competent and remarkably responsive.
After setting up the printer, my initial test run appeared problematic: underscore was showing more like strike-through. Contacting Dell tech support through live-chat was instantaneous: Niegel, the support analyst, came online the very moment I opened the chat dialogue. Niegel was great. His troubleshooting helped me isolate the problem to a specific application; the underscore issue only appeared when printing from Evernote. Yay! I wouldn’t have to return the printer, after all.
After closing the live chat module, I received an email from Niegel offering his direct contact info in case I had further questions. He even included the contact info of his supervisor. Now that’s transparency! To top it off, the following day, Niegel followed up with another email, offering further assistance if I had come up with other questions.
The photo above shows the excellent quality of the printer’s text output. Oddly, two separate PC Magazine reviews of this printer clashed in their assessments of the printer’s text quality. Review A praised the “unusually good graphics quality” and called its text output “outstandingly sharp.” But Review B was lukewarm, calling it “a touch below par,” further specifying the text output to be fine for “general business use, though not for uses requiring very small fonts.” As you can see in my photo, text looks great in even 7-pt. font size.
Good show, Dell!
Need to order a commercial print job from an online printer, but don’t have Adobe Illustrator ($560)? That’s my situation. I’ve laid out a nice business card in PowerPoint (above), including the logo I also designed in PowerPoint. But Powerpoint does not produce vector graphics. Printers need vector graphics. They also recommend submitting PDFs that have been “pre-flighted” using certain Adobe Acrobat presets, such as PDF/X-1a.
That’s what I said. What a bear it was to research this. And for an additional challenge, I wanted to see if I could accomplish all this on a budget. I assumed I could find some vector-graphics freeware with which to reproduce my designs. But the question remained: how to save the graphics file in the “pre-flighted” PDF format that online printers specify?
(In case you’re considering skipping the preflighting step, know that preflighting helps avoid printing glitches such as font substitutions and color alterations.)
Turns out, the key to all this is Adobe Acrobat.
Some of this terminology rang a bell, as I used to own the Adobe Creative Suite (ACS; back then, $1500) when I ran my photo equipment rentals business. ACS includes all the programs that produce file formats press printers require, such as .ID (InDesign), .EPS (Photoshop), .AI (Illustrator), and of course .PDF (Acrobat). I needed all four of them to design marketing materials for that business. But that was four years ago. For the past four years I’ve been running my healthcare business, with no need for ACS, at all. Now that I’m starting up my freelance commercial writing business, I’ve been crossing my fingers that I won’t need to spend $1000+ on design software.
The bottom line is, yes, one can create vector graphics using freeware/shareware (I used Inkscape to recreate my PowerPoint designs). But for press printing, you need to create properly preflighted PDF’s. For that, you must have Adobe Acrobat (price varies depending on version and how purchased, $100 – $429).
I verified this by downloading the free trial of Acrobat 11. With Acrobat installed, the Acrobat Virtual Printer will appear in your list of devices and printers. (This is in Windows, obviously.) You simply design your graphics in your vector software, then follow these steps to preflight your PDF:
1) “Print” your file (That’s right, “print” not “save”!)
2) In the print dialog, select Adobe PDF as the “printer.”
3) Click preferences (or printer properties).
4) In Preferences, the “Default Settings” area offers a drop-down menu of PDF format presets. For business card printing, Moo.com specifies the preset PDF/X-1a:2001. For printing a brochure, Vistaprint.com requires PDF/a-1b:2005 (CMYK).
5) Click okay to get out of preferences.
6) Click print. You’re done.
Now you have your vector-based, properly pre-flighted PDF to upload to your online printer.
My Rental Studio Business: Big Multiday Photo Shoots
Weddings in Houston, the city’s premier wedding vendor resource, shot many of its covers at my photography rental studio, Silver Street Studio. Editor and publisher Radhika Day put together a crew that fired on all cylinders over the three-day shoot. Crack stylist Summar Salah plied her stagecraft on three different glittery sets and twelve wedding gown wardrobes. Hair and makeup by The Perfect Face transformed the models into showstopping brides. And photographer Larry Fagala captured all the drama with technical expertise.
We came out of Karaoke Kid and I had to ride home on my frozen bike. For the two hours we were karaokiing, my bike was outside on a pole, getting sleeted to death. On my way home, nothing worked. Not my brakes, not my shifters. Couldn’t hear the usual zippy-hum of my studded tires — they were encased in ice.
While running my rental studio, Silver Street Studio in Houston, it was exciting to work with photographers and agencies of international renown, like Mary Ellen Mark and Mark Seliger, Art Department and Greenhouse Reps. But it was a special pleasure to work with those photographers and crews that were at bottom simply great human beings.
TONY D’ORIO PHOTOGRAPHY
I think immediately of Tony D’Orio, of Altoids fame. (Note: Tony’s photo used in the ad above was not shot in my studio). How refreshing that, in a profession so rife with jealously guarded tricks of the trade, Tony instead offered a broad openness and generousness of spirit. Over the course of a two-day shoot for McDonalds, he showed me a couple of studio equipment hacks that made my job easier and that would be enjoyed by other photographers in my studio for years to come. For instance, he showed me how to switch out the hand-crank machine clamp of an Elinchrom Octabank–which have infamously weak grip—with the more robust clamp from a Matthews C-stand.
FULTON DAVENPORT, PWL STUDIO
Lucky for me I like photographer Fulton Davenport as much as I do since he was perhaps our biggest repeat client over the years. With his busy creative firm, PWL Studio, Fulton was shooting in our space practically every other week for years. One of his specialties is product photography, which was also a specialty of ours. Take a look at the photo above, of Fulton at work for a high-end antique shop client. The tabletop set is comprised of expendables and hardware we kept in stock and offered at no extra charge. Even more to the point of product photography was our studio’s unsurpassed natural light. Heres Fulton on shooting day light in our space:
“I love the highly technical work, like photographing objects with intense detail, a la Irving Penn shooting for Saks Fifth Avenue. You’d normally need (or have to build) a light tent. But here, you’ve got such huge windows on north and south, the light is perfect. Tents are used just to simulate this.”
JUSTIN CALHOUN PHOTOGRAPHY
One of my favorite people, photographers or not, is Justin Calhoun. Justin brought us a big job one summer, and one could tell how much the crew liked working for him. The makeup department, the photo assistants, even the kraft service people were obviously inspired to work hard for Justin, with smiles all around. What you see here in the two photos above is a Polaroid test shot (the client wanted Justin to shoot film, not digital) and one of the direct mail pieces ultimately produced from the images.
FELIX SANCHEZ PHOTOGRAPHY
Another of our busy-busy clients was Felix Sanchez. Felix was one of the first to shoot in our studio in the early days, and he continued to bring interesting jobs into our space over the next seven years. (He has his own beautiful new studio now.) Before becoming a photographer Felix played in a touring Tejano band, so naturally he’s photographed many musicians throughout his career. Early on with us, Felix was kind enough to help me assimilate the vast expanse that is studio equipment. He’d report on all of his new experiences experimenting with lighting equipment. I based many of my equipment acquisitions on Felix’s information. The job in the photo above was for Walmart, for which Felix transformed our cold, empty space into a warm and cozy living room. Go check out his handsome new website.
I come to the party a bit late, having been busy re-watching a string of other brutally intelligent series: Dollhouse, Deadwood, Madmen, Ghost in the Shell S.A.C. 2nd GIG. But I’m finally digging into Breaking Bad, and it’s plain to see what all the fuss is about.
As any good storyteller does, Breaking Bad teaches you how to watch. For instance (spoiler alert!) in the intro to Episode 6, Season 1, Walt gives a speech to his partner in crime in which he agrees to continue manufacturing methamphetamine but only according to a set of limits and boundaries, chief of which is the declaration that there be “no more bloodshed”, a reference to the two rival drug dealers they’d killed in Episodes 1 through 5. Interspersed throughout this speech are edits that cut away in piecemeal fashion to some other scene, a scene of some kind of street violence involving an exploding building and someone leaving the scene of the explosion with what appears to be a severed head in a bloody canvas sack. You ultimately realize the cutaway scene is from the end of the episode and that Walt has blown up the building and has likely killed a man. And this time, by the look on Walt’s face, it appears the murder has been committed with malice, perhaps a revenge killing.
This totally works in the show’s favor. The sequence follows the conceit of the series structural design that was set up in the intro to Episode 1. In the intro to Episode 1, in medias res, we’re given the show’s hero speaking hastily into a handy cam, as police sirens approach in the distance. Speaking into the camcorder Walt is addressing his wife and son, asking their forgiveness for unstated crimes which he has committed in the name of providing a future for his family, while in the background we can see an RV containing the dead bodies of two rival drug dealers. In other words, each episode’s intro gives us a teaser: a peek ahead to Act III of the episode’s classic three-act structure. This creates narrative drive: the audience is then driven to watch Acts I and II to find out how the hero has landed himself in such deep trouble.
In three-act structure, according to Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, “[I]n the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.” Breaking Bad’s innovation is to give us a peek at Act III in the intro to each episode.
After the opening credits, Act I of nearly every episode show us mild-mannered Walt White, high school chemistry teacher, whose admirable middle-class values and underdog status make him an anti-hero the audience can identify with. Act 1 of each episode starts with Walt behaving or speaking sanely, the emotional floor steady and level beneath the audience. In Episode 1 specifically, this is pre-cancer Walt. As his health (including his mental health) is destroyed by cancer, his middle-class world view is also wrecked, annihilated, even. Into the moral vacuum rushes the alternate Walt, who, upon learning the cancer will soon kill him, decides to become a drug dealer. In other words Act I ends by answering the why–why Walt turns to a life of crime.
Act II answers the how–how it comes about that Walt not only manufactures crystal meth, but in the process also kills people. In Act II Walt not surprisingly is confronted by a savage harvest of physical threats, moral dilemmas, and golden opportunities born of his choices and of the exigencies of the street. Even more to the point, though, Act II amps up Walt’s underdog resentment of the broken world. His public-school teacher salary being what it is, Walt is forced to take a part-time job once his wife becomes too pregnant to work. After school he hustles to a nearby car wash and works as its cashier, where his mild manner is abused by an unreasonable manager who orders Walt outside to wipe down wet cars when a line employee calls in sick. One of the cars is the gleaming new Corvette of a rich kid who earlier in the episode is seen disrespecting Walt in the classroom. The rich kid humiliates Walt by photographing him stooping over with a dirty rag and texting the photo to others.
Such telling detail instructs the audience in how to read the show’s themes, while also pumping up the tension by fully earning each episode’s extremes of character development and drama. Why does Walt do what he does? I’ll tell you why! the screenwriters say. In grad school, one of my MFA professors called this the GRAB principle: Give the Reader a Break–never leave the audience confused as to why protagonists do what they do.
In Episode 6, we see Walt in the classroom lecturing about chemical reactions. He says at one point, “Chemical reactions that happen slowly change very little, so little we hardly even notice the change, like rust forming on the underside of a car.” Walt pauses mid-sentence, frowning at what he’s just said, and of course we are put in mind of Walt’s cancer. He continues his lecture. “…But, if a reaction happens quickly, otherwise harmless substances can . . . generate enormous bursts of energy . . . as in explosions, [and] the faster they undergo change, the more violent the explosion.” We think of the whiplash pace with which Walt has shed his middle-class skin and become a local methamphetamine kingpin on the DEA’s most-wanted list.
This also hints at the violent reaction taking place in the hearts of the audience. Like seeing one’s reflection in the glass pane of a disturbing framed work of art, we viewers are implicated in Walt’s man-slaughtering ways by virtue of sympathizing with him. Isn’t it common, after watching an episode, to later in the day walk around with the guarding sensations of dread and suspicion?
I’d be hard-pressed to pick one favorite thing about running old rentals business, Silver Street Studio, LLC. Working with photo crews? Tasty catering? Both, awesome. But our Fotofest Biennial exhibits really stand out for me.
Every two years we’d donate our space for a month to house one of the thirty Fotofest Biennial exhibits. The Fotofest Biennial, according to their website, is “the largest event of its kind in the world”. . . a “platform for ideas and discovery, combining museum-quality art with important social and aesthetic issues.”
In the photo above you can see why I loved temporarily transforming my workaday photo studio into an elegant, clean modern art gallery. There were always anxiety butterflies in that first hour of the gallery opening, when only one person would show up (above).
My wife and I enjoy throwing parties. It’s safe to say our Fotofest gallery openings were our best attended shindigs. And at the end of the night, as the last of the army would be marching out, and our volunteers could take their first much-needed break (below), my wife and I would smile at each another, a bit incredulous we had really pulled off an event of such complexity and magnitude, and had a thrilling fun time doing it.
Madison has made me whole again. A phoenix rising from the ashes? Check. And not a moment too soon.
I was recovering from a serious loss: grieving the death of my first beloved small business to the cancer of the Great Recession. Obstructing the grieving process was the insane work schedule of my new small business, a nighthawk radiology service. Nighthawk radiology is third-shift work, 7 PM to 7 AM, seven days on and seven days off. Each night my two-man team would process (receive, read, and report on) the ER imaging of 130 patients per night from nine regional hospitals. Then we’d sleep the day long, eat “breakfast” at 5 PM, and do it all over again. Needless to say, the intensity and Sysiphian nature of my work week allowed for little reflection or meditation.
But at the end of workday seven, I would fly from Houston to Madison to spend my off-week with my wife, who had just gone back to school for graduate studies in public health at UW Madison. I was greeted each week by the magical sight of Tenney Park (below; photo credit needed), which is essentially the gateway to Madison coming from the airport.
We lived in UW married student housing, called Eagle Heights. Each Monday morning I would have the cab stop short of the complex and let me off at the bottom of the hill for a nice stroll up the bike path (below).
Eagle Heights was a throwback to mid-century institutional community design, with 1200 units housing over 3000 people essentially off in the woods. It was separated from the main UW campus by a mile-and-a-half of the lake shore, which insulated us from the famously hard-partying undergrads.
It was a quiet hideaway, shaded in summer by 150-foot white pines and old oaks of ten-foot girth. Summer mornings could get a bit rowdy, as hundreds of the children of grad students ran wild in this bubble of safety and open space. Summers in Eagle Heights demonstrate the occupation of little kids to be the playtime mimicry of working adults.
Our two-bedroom unit was “cozy.” We had brought our king size platform bed with us from Houston, and we were lucky to assemble it with the bedroom door open because, once the platform was screwed together, it blocked the door. Tiny, yes, but the 650 square-feet of space had been laid out so well that we had all we needed.
That tiny apartment, with its single entrance and instantly surveyable floorspace, both swaddled me in warmth and encouraged me to spend time outdoors (which I took to include all the quality beer bars in the area). For us coming from a 3000 ft.² house in Houston, Eagle Heights living forced us to pare back. It was a cleansing consolidation, sorting and culling the piles of material possessions one collects over the years. I was astonished to find myself able to let go, even of items from my childhood that had an irrational hold on me, like this model ship which found a very good home in the bedroom of one of our favorite neighbors (below).
I feel the emblematic patterns of Middle Life–moving out of state, changing careers, gaining weight, losing hair. Yet I feel it’s in Middle Life that one can make certain choices one couldn’t have made years ago. I feel I’ve traded an old sailing vessel that wasn’t doing me any good for a new one. (Have I mentioned I’ve joined the sailing club?)
Joining the UW Hoofers sailing club is something I never would’ve done before. My pre-Madison worldview was that of consumer first. And what do good consumers do when they want to go sailing? They buy a boat of their own. That probably explains why I’d never chosen to sail: the concept of owning a boat, and a trailer with which to tow it, and rented storage, all presented a barrier to my entering the world of sailing. The UW Hoofers Sailing Club leverages the resources of the community to provide the boats and infrastructure and volunteer efforts for maintenance. For a modest $295/year, I can sail any of the 100+ boats (from dinghies to sloops, on up to six different keel boats), windsurfers, and even snow kites in winter. Perhaps best of all is unlimited instruction at no extra cost, which is how I learned to sail.
Speaking of winter, I ride my bike year-round.
In fact, when my wife and I moved to Madison, we sold our cars and left them behind in Texas. Madison is compact enough, we can go nearly everywhere we want on our bikes. When we do need to go farther, the Metro bus system is superb, with seemingly more lines than one could ever need. Also nice, there’s no bus stigma. To see the bus carrying individuals of many different income levels is to see a city that confronts its traffic problem as adults: rather than ever-widening streets at the expense of all else, the city actually restricts traffic in various ways, chiefly by restricting parking. Instead of encouraging more cars into the city center, the city provides great public transit and some of North America’s most admired cycling and pedestrian byways. The true economic elite in this town still of course drive luxury cars to work every morning. But if they work in the city center, they park at a premium. Everyone else enjoys free (with any current student ID) or cheap and highly efficient trips by bus, bike, or on foot. I recently took the heavily used route #70 nine miles to the west side during rush hour, which took twenty-five minutes. That same trip on a woefully under-funded bus system in Houston used to take me a punishing 45 minutes each way to and from the college campus where I taught.
Rather than prioritize the individual in his or her own car, Madison coaxes individuals out onto the streets, preserving great public spaces for more people to enjoy. The site of its lively sidewalk culture and busy bicycle commuter paths could be mistaken for one of the nation’s great cityscapes, like Portland or Seattle or Berkeley. Madison is a small, compact place. Competing interests collide. Hard choices must be made. It’s clear the city is making many of them well.
There is also Community Car, a car sharing club that rivals the amazing value of the Sailing Club.
For a one time $35 sign up fee, we joined the club and can reserve any of the Priuses, pickup trucks, Honda Fits and Civics, five of them kept in various spots within a mile of our apartment. The cars are fully insured and fully fueled at no extra cost, save for the hourly fee, which is only $7.50/hour or the $3.75/hour Night Owl rate after 11 PM. Mileage only costs extra beyond 150 miles in a day. My wife and I rent Community Car to the tune of $20/month on average. The service hits that sweet spot that’s triangulated between the bus, the bike, and walking. The car isn’t the symbol of American individualist freedom for nothing; it can be a real advantage to have a car for certain scenarios. But not owning a car–not shouldering the financial costs (depreciation, fuel, interest on financing, insurance, sales tax, maintenance, repair; Consumer Reports estimates such costs for a Mini Cooper to be $5,800/year!) or the costs in lost time (dealing with maintenance or breakdowns or flats or dead batteries, researching the purchase, researching the maintenance/repair providers)–now, that’s a freedom in and of itself. The catchphrase in the Community Car logo is “Own less. Live more.” I get that now.
This post is getting way too long. Besides, by now one can see what I’m getting at about Madison. Madison has shown us a paradox: the riches of living modestly but deeply and without fear, in a place that values community. In this town I feel awake again. Again? Or is it really for the first time, ever?