Ode to empty space


I had a friend over last night who had never been to my place before, and he remarked (as several have before him) on the lack of art (or anything) on the walls. I moved into my apartment about 9 months ago, and I plan on being here a very long time. As such, I am in no particular hurry to “finish” the space (a strange idea anyway, as when is anything ever finished?). I have happily taken my time picking out the right table, sofa, etc, only getting them when I feel right about it. It would also be true to say that with limited funds I rather need to be slow and methodical about purchasing things anyway. I don’t have thousands of extra dollars sitting around waiting to be spent on various furniture and nicknacks to fill my apartment, and even if I did I would be extremely cautious about any new thing I acquired. While I admit that my tastes are not in the norm, I am always a little perplexed as to why people find this unnerving. The thing they seem to have a hard time grappling with is how emptiness and simplicity are calming to me. To me, most people are rather like hoarders, and I get the sense that they are unconvinced of their own existence in the absence of a wide variety of things to reflect and prove it. When I left on my world trip a few years back, I quite literally got rid of everything I owned. My friend from last night seemed incredulous, expecting that I would have put a bunch of things in storage for later.

“To what end?”, I asked.

For me, it seems clear that being so tied to so much stuff is poison to the soul. The more we own (and the more we fetishize those things), the more we are bound to them, and to taking care of them, and to our craving for them. Our stuff owns us as much as we own it. To me, an empty space is calming, tranquil, full of possibility, yet already complete. There is no place to get to, we are already there. Being attached to the archiving of my past in the form of (seemingly) solid things, and putting it on display (with some ostentation) is simply not my cup of tea.

Step back in time


My friend Alok invited me and a few friends of his along to see a new Indian film made by a director he knows personally. The film was called Dhobi Ghat, which is named after the place in Mumbai where all the laundry washers do their work. The film was in no way a typical product of Bollywood, as there were no big splashy musical numbers and no one ended up getting married at the end. It was a much more somber affair than that, but I really enjoyed it, as much for the Bombay atmosphere as anything. It really made me want to go back for a visit, so many of the places in the film were familiar to me. After the film Alok’s friends suggested we go to a gay bar close by, and it ended up being a place called The Townhouse. This is a place I have heard of for a long time, but never happened to go to because it is so far east (58th and 2nd) and I am never over there. The place was a laugh riot. It was like time traveling to some pre-Stonewall era bar, everyone dressed in suits or sweaters with collared shirts underneath. It easily could have been 1965 at a meeting of The Mattachine Society. I found it charming as a kind of themed costume party, and Alok and I talked about going back at some point, but I think if this were the only gay bar in town I could just as well get a cat, stay in, and watch old Bette Davis movies on an endless loop.

Oh Sandy baby


Dear Sandra Suess,

You don’t know me, but we share a first initial and last name. And apparently you have recently become active on the intertubes filling out all kinds of forms where they ask for your email address, and you just thought you would make up one that sounded real using your first initial and last name followed by a popular email provider domain. The problem is, Sandra, that this is a real email address. It is mine, and I am getting all your junk mail now in my formerly mostly-free-of-spam email inbox. Apparently, you like to peruse People.com and solicit information from websites offering to help you collect disability benefits, among other things. And really, who am I to judge you for that? Still, while I understand how yucky it is to have to give up all that personal info, and I myself have made up email addresses in the past, I implore you to use ones that are less likely to belong to someone else. If you really want to appear authentic, why not try an unlikely but still recognizable combo? Something like “sandrasuessreadstrashypoprags@domain.com” or similar would be just fine with me.

Thanks for understanding,

Stephen Suess

Rules for freelancers


I’ve been freelancing for a while now, over two years. And although I used to freelance in the late 90’s, this is by far my most serious and sustained go at it, and my most successful. (Of course, success is a relative and variable term). And in the past couple of years, I have developed a set of rules for myself that help me make the most of the experience. Every freelancer will have their own set of rules, but these are the ones that have worked out the best for me.

1. Get over your ego.
People have various reasons for doing the job they do. For me, it is really all about the relationships and learning. That is useful to keep in mind when a client requests something in a project that I am at odds with. I usually will state my opinion on the matter, and more often than not the client will agree and we will proceed on that basis. But sometimes they want what they want outside of my professional considerations, and it is after all their site, not mine. They are the ones that need to be happy with it at the end of the day, not me. I really don’t have a big ego about my design work, and I think that serves me well. If I am particularly pleased with a website when it is complete, I will put it in my portfolio. And if not, I won’t. If the client is happy at the end, I am happy.

2. Write clear proposals with exclusions and payment terms
This may seem like a no brainer, but it isn’t, and it has taken me a while to massage the terms of my quotes to be clear and workable. I always try to lay out in the clearest way possible what the scope of the work to be done will be, what the payment schedule will be, and what is excluded. A clear proposal helps the client understand what they are paying for and what they are not paying for. Some of these things are less of a concern if one is working hourly, but if one is working for a set project fee then it is essential. Although rare, there have been occasions when I had to remind the client of exactly what we agreed to, and it is helpful to have it in writing.

3. Figure out how much you can afford to lose and never have more than that outstanding with a client
A few years ago, I had to sue ex-business partners of mine over a site they stole from me and a substantial sum of money. It was a 2 year, extremely costly (lawyers fees) endeavor that was truly not worth it. I swore then that I would never get into a situation again where there was too much owed to me to lose. Accordingly, I have a dollar amount that is the most I will allow a client to owe me. This is the amount I am willing to walk away from. I hear all the time from people that are owed tons of money from clients and I wonder how they let themselves get into that situation. When I reach that amount (or before) I will bill my client. If they do not pay me, there will be no more work, and I will walk away. I will not take them to court or hire a lawyer for this purpose, it is poison to the soul. This amount may vary over time, but it is always the amount I am willing to lose, to walk away from.

4. Refuse to do work if a client is late with an invoice (at least until it is paid)
Related to number 3 above. I never understand why people will continue to do work for a client that has not paid. No pay, no work.

5. Be willing to walk away from work
This is a tough one, especially in a bad economy or down period. But it is important. I have turned down projects where I didn’t feel the relationship would be mutually beneficial, even when I wasn’t sure where the rent was coming from.

6. Don’t sell yourself short
Somewhat related to number 5, I set hourly billing for myself on a number of factors. While I may be willing to work for less if the project affords me some education in a new area or gives me a particularly interesting creative challenge and freedom, generally I try to maintain some rigidity in my pricing. Potential clients whose only goal is to spend the least possible on their website are not going to be a good fit.

7. Don’t oversell yourself
In a similar vein, try to be honest with clients about what you know and what you will need to learn on the job. If there is something that you truly don’t think you will be able to accomplish, pass on it and be honest with the client before you are in too deep. Over the past two years as my skill and speed have increased, I have become pretty accurate about how much time things will take and feel confident in my ability to learn most new things, but there are occasions where I have to say up front, “I don’t know”.

8. Don’t talk smack about other clients
This should be obvious, but no client wants to hear about problems you had with previous clients. Tell it to your therapist or partner if you must, or suck it up and be quiet.

I of course have a few other rules that govern my work habits and product, but the above are the ones I am most public about, and the ones that govern my relationships with clients. I strive to be consistent in their application, but I am of course only human and sometimes things don’t go according to plan. That said, I am pretty happy so far with the experience. Who knows where it all will lead, and honestly, does it matter? The doing is more important than end of doing, if you ask me.

The folks who live on the hill


I was transported to an ugly looking hotel in India after recognizing it briefly in a magazine, then started discussing the architecture and looking for someone. We (not sure who was with me) came across a sort of kid’s summer camp of adults in this part of the country, and several of them were leaving. A few of them I knew had secrets they were afraid of revealing, and I suspected one of them of being gay. After that, I rented a small apartment that used to be mine but now had another man and woman living in it, although they were not related to each other in any way. It was a strange kind of place, sort of a cylindrical bunker, with curtain lines hanging everywhere to separate the space into “rooms”. We decided to clean it up and make it nice, and as we were cleaning it up we noticed that there were bugs everywhere that needed to be exterminated. I kept noticing that as I would put my glass of lemonade down, all these little ants would gather around it quickly and I realized that because the drink was very sweet it was probably attracting them. I would move the glass and watch the ants follow it in a mini swarm. We were sleeping in these hammock-like things hanging from the ceiling and I was somewhat attracted to the man, with a small crush on him, and we kept holding hands but I wasn’t sure if he was into me or not. We kept planning the makeover for the place, and cleaning out and fixing up this small, weirdly shaped building which was at the end tip of a long island, very remote. And then I woke up.

New York to a child


My brother David and nephew Max are here visiting me for the weekend. Max is almost 9 years old and I remember how cool it was for me as a kid when my parents took me to New York. I want to impart to him some of that early excitement and wonder I had about the city. Coming from Indianapolis, I remember being amazed at how huge New York was, and how bustling. In a very real way, those couple of early trips here filled me with a sense of possibility, and changed the ultimate course of my life. I think that was when my love of travel and learning about new cultures was first set alight, and that curiosity follows me strongly to this day. I hope for Max to have that same awe about the world and its many cultures. This past year has also been great for me to mix with my family in ways other than merely as a giant group at Thanksgiving. As separate members or groupings visit me, we get to spend a little more quality time together, getting to know each other anew, which is important I think. As the years go by and we take different paths, we become different people. The ones we knew so well so many years ago are not the ones they are today. Reconnecting with family (and friends) this way is really a treat.

Juggling act


Thanks to my friend Michael, I got hooked up with a Pilates instructor who needs to complete some training hours for certification and will be training me for free for the next 6 weeks. Having never done Pilates before and always up for trying something new, I jumped at the chance.  Although I have only recently started back at the gym, I consider myself to be in fairly decent shape and someone who knows a fair amount about how my body works. However in this regard Pilates was a fairly humbling experience. It takes a degree of balance and coordination that I have only a glancing exposure to it turns out. And even though I was just introduced to the basics yesterday, I was impressed by the degree of mental (as well as physical) coordination that is required. Breathing a specific way while holding a ball between my knees and sliding on a platform maintaining a certain balance in alternating diagonal movements — Jesus, if I can ever do this properly I should join the circus. But precisely because it mixes this mental and physical challenge, and blurs the mind/body training line, I think I will really like it. And I appreciate that it is a totally different kind of training than I have ever done before. At the very least I will be able to evaluate how it goes over the next 6 weeks and see about continuing after that. So far I think it is pretty cool, and Pilates equipment and studios (the ones I have seen anyway) have the added benefit of being aesthetically pleasing to me with their spare and Zen look. Not that this should matter, but it felt as much a place for meditation as it did for workout, and that seems a good summing up of the merged challenge of my first day.



Everyone who knows me well knows I have a touch of claustrophobia. Heights, wide open spaces, crowds, spiders, snakes or mice — none of these things bother me in the least. But the idea of being trapped in an enclosed space is unsettling to me. So obviously I am not fond of crowded elevators or subway cars, especially when stopped between stations or floors.  And as fate would have it, that is exactly what happened tonight. I was on my way home from seeing a play with friends.  I got into the elevator alone as there was no one else around, and pushed the button for my floor. The elevator started climbing, then abruptly started falling, fast. It jerked to a stop about two floors down from there and shook a couple of times. I nervously started pressing buttons of the closest floors to where I was trying to get the door to open. Button lights went on and off, but no movement. So I pushed the call button. The guy at the front desk answered, but then got cut off.  I called again and he answered again, this time asking me where I was.

“I’m trapped in the elevator!”, I said. “And I have to pee!”

And he said to hold on, he was calling for help. I felt warm and took off my winter coat and waited for the inevitable panic to set in. But you know what? It didn’t, really. Sure I wanted out of there and yes I did have to pee, but it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as I expected it to be. Although I wasn’t relishing the idea of pissing in the corner of the elevator (especially with the camera looking down on me), I was staying pretty calm. And then, like magic, about 10 minutes later the elevator started working again and I was able to ride to my floor and exit.

What happens after short ribs


I have a new client that owns a restaurant, and he thought it a good idea that I dine there before beginning the site design. So he comped me a dinner for two. I was thrilled by this idea because the restaurant is quite well regarded, and so I took Michael last night and we had a really wonderful meal. I ordered the sweet potato ravioli to start followed by the short ribs, complemented by a very nice glass of Malbec. The dishes were truly excellent, if a bit rich.

And sometimes after a rich and heavy meal, I will have very odd dreams — and last night I had a doozy. I can only remember little bits and pieces of it, but it involved a weird family reunion with hundreds of people (even though we don’t have nearly that many relatives) having a picnic in some windy field with many lined up tables. There was some discussion and argument about the best way for me to inflate a raft and what sort of pump to use. At one point I and a couple other people were in a seafood restaurant where they were serving frozen fish, and we argued over fresh versus frozen. Then we were in Italy and I picked up a WiFi signal to find the place where I had stayed with my friend Fabrizio (who I haven’t seen in 20 years). And finally, I was in the house from my childhood when the door rang, and I went to look through the peephole to see who it was. And it was a friend of mine who I didn’t want to talk to because we had had a falling out. And finally, it started snowing. I wish I could have remembered more, but alas these things are elusive. I have had dreams before that had particular story lines that were more fantastic or strange, but rarely one that covered so very many mundane subjects at once.



Last night was a lot of fun. Josh and I were invited by Michael to attend a performance by “Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo“, an all male troupe that plays expertly and hilariously with the medium and history of ballet.  Following that Michael and I left Josh for a party high above Times Square. The view was amazing. I had only been to Times Square for NYE once before, way back in 1988, and it didn’t turn out so well. We were standing in the throngs, thousands of people pressed up against us. The ball dropped, and we all started cheering…and then some jerk decided to set off a couple of smoke bombs. There was screaming and yelling, people pushing and crushing and choking on the smoke. Then we somehow got hustled out of there by the cops and found ourselves inside the barricades with thousands of onlookers on all sides. Our coughing group then made its way to the exits.

What a difference 20 years and some terrorist attacks makes.

Everything was far more orderly and security minded than in the past. Everything from the control and placement of barricades and crowds, to the police lines to cross to get into the building we were in, to the surveillance. It was both a relief to feel that things were more controlled and kind of sad that this is what our world has come to. A kind of innocence is definitely gone, but on the other hand the crowd seemed just as enthusiastic (and drunk) as ever, despite being penned in. And perched on the 13th floor, overlooking everything with about 50 or so other people was quite a treat.