My Dad, Epic Pumpkin Carver

From the title you might think my dad does those kinds of crazy intricate designs in negative space using the relative thickness of the rind. He doesn’t do that. Instead, he gets pumpkins he thinks have “character” and gives them kooky faces.

Here are this year’s pumpkins: the normal one is my brother’s.

I helped scoop all the glop out of all of them, down to the rind. They look more like gourds than pumpkins on the inside, with lots of seeds so tightly clumped together that you have to cut them out with a knife. The white one even has eerily green flesh.

This is the fun part. Most people would probably put a squashed face on the side of the green pumpkin, right? Not my dad. He put the face on the top, using the stem as the nose. Here he is carving:

And here’s the finished product.

The back kept falling off, so I put some toothpicks through it so it’d stay in place. We can just put the candle through one of the eye holes tomorrow.

Now onto the white one! Weird pumpkins are always way harder to carve since their rinds are so much tougher, so we don’t have a ton of pumpkins. This white one in particular was really hard to carve. But we made it eventually:

And this is the way in which my dad is the best pumpkin carver I know. Not because he makes the fanciest designs, but because his pumpkins are all memorable and weird. Our Halloween is never gory or gauche; it’s simple and classy. We don’t put gravestones or severed heads in the yard. We have a figure in a silk gown peeking out through window curtains, we have a dragon skull on the front step, we have a candelabra on the piano and a real metal sword on the wall. There are no obnoxiously large fake spiders waiting to scare trick-or-treaters, only my dad in a long fancy cloak sitting by the door and reading Edgar Allen Poe’s collected works while haunting piano music plays in the background.

That’s his aesthetic, and the pumpkins are meant to fit that.

The Importance of Support

Being Jewish was always something I felt like I was in the abstract. I had a different culture than most people, I celebrated different holidays, I had a different native country, my family spoke a different language. I was different, sure, but not in any way that mattered.

Otherwise, I’m just like every other American. I celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks. I stay up late on New Year’s Eve watching the ball drop on TV. Unlike many Jews, I even celebrate Christmas: my dad grew up Christian, so we decided to maintain the tradition from his side of the family. Being Jewish never got in the way of these things.

When I told people I was Jewish, I was sometimes met with confusion, but rarely with hate. In fact, it happened so infrequently that I can recall each individual instance.

This is why I was so shaken when I heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. I didn’t understand how this man could look at a bunch of people who celebrated our holidays like he celebrated Christmas, who had a native culture and history like other Americans might be Irish or Norse, but who were also American citizens just like anyone else, and decide we must be eradicated off the face of the earth.

How do you look at my family on Rosh Hashannah, smiling and laughing and passing around a brisket like many families would pass around a honey ham on Christmas, and decide that “all Jews must die”?

I don’t think I can hope to know, but I was scared nonetheless.

I personally am relatively safe. I go to a different synagogue which doesn’t happen to be in a Jewish neighborhood, and I only go on high holidays when they have a decent amount of security. Everyone I know personally, even those who go to the Tree of Life, is okay. But though that diminishes the fear for the personal safety of those I know, it doesn’t do anything about the more general fear I have for my people.

If you’re a member of a majority culture, you may not understand the strong bond between members of a minority one. Try to think of it as if all Jews are members of the same extended family. (Technically speaking, with Jews in particular this is actually true; you can only become Jewish by marriage or by being the child of a Jewish family, so all Jews are in some sense related.) So, though nobody I knew personally was killed or injured, many members of my extended family were. And that feels pretty awful.

There is a light in the fog, though. It’s the reason I decided to write this essay, as opposed to many others I could have written around a similar topic. And that light is the fact that a lot of people, all of them goyim, have been asking me questions like these.

“Jen… are you okay? I mean I know you weren’t in it but… anyone you knew?”

“Hey, you okay? Cole mentioned you live near Pittsburgh.”

“Is your family safe?”

I’ve never had so many people asking after me before. It was really nice to know that so many people cared. It helped me to realize that, in the words of my skating coach, “Those who hate are a small percentage of the country. The people who love are so many more in number and power and we will always win in the end.” Just because one man thinks that I shouldn’t exist doesn’t mean that everyone thinks that.

This is the importance of support. And it’s not just about mass shootings that make national news; it’s about every crisis, big and small. If you ask one simple question, “are you okay”, you can lift one straw off someone’s breaking back. You can make their day that much more bearable. If you ever question whether or not to reach out to someone going through hardship, do it. Reach out.

It really does help.

Copywriting Practice

Bonus essay today! I’ll be looking at some good marketing copy, dissecting it, and then creating a design of my own based on that.

Here’s an awesome example of great copy: Basecamp.

In the first line, they say “We’ve been expecting you.” makes it about the customer. Customer-oriented copy is always great. They then relate to the customer, and simultaneously imply who their customer base is: people in “growing businesses”. And lastly, they offer a solution to the problem they just called to your mind, and offer you a free trial right there and then. Within a single paragraph, they’ve made their pitch and they’re ready to have you get their thing.

Basically, they’re saying “Hey you, person in a growing business! You’ve got these problems, right? Let us solve ’em for you. Here’s how to get started.”

Let’s keep going. Here’s the next section’s heading:

3,562 businesses signed up last week to get results like these…

They follow this with their customer reviews. Isn’t this a much better heading than something generic like “Just look at what these satisfied customers had to say”? Statistics are always awesome. People like seeing big numbers.

After this, they’ve got a slightly longer pitch containing more specifics about what they do and how they do it, then another free trial link. You always want to make it as easy as possible for your prospect to do what you want them to, which in a web context means don’t make your prospect scroll to find the download/purchase/trial link. They should have to do approximately zero work to find the place to get your product once they decide they want to. Basecamp knows this, and does it perfectly.

That said…

I used what I learned from Basecamp to create a landing page mockup for a local skating program.

It’s meh from a design standpoint, but the basic elements are there: customer-oriented slogan, signup button easily accessible, followed by more pitch.

I know this isn’t anywhere near perfect copy, but just knowing what makes good copy and good design is immensely useful.

Landing Pages: Critique, Compare, and Contrast

Hey guys! Today, I covered the design, usability, and copy of two different websites. I did a bit of a compare-and-contrast between the two, talking about my first impressions of each page, what I found annoying about the designs, and what could be done to improve these issues.

Here are the websites I covered, so you can poke around if you want:
Loom
Notepad++

Rubber Duck Debugging: What It Is and What It’s For

Debugging in general is the act of fixing errors (called “bugs”) in computer code. Rubber duck debugging is the act of debugging by explaining your code to a rubber duck.

That’s a simple enough explanation, but why would you want to do that?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself”? The concept is that if you truly understand something, you can explain it to someone who knows nothing about it.

This isn’t just a test of understanding for concepts you already know are sound. You can use the power of explanation to find problems with concepts you came up with yourself. If you explain your logic to someone who knows nothing about it, you’ll be forced to start over from the logical beginning and explain in simple terms.

When you’re the one who created the logic, you can sometimes accidentally accept unreasonable assumptions without knowing it. If you then have to explain the logic, though, you’ll need to spell out your assumptions. And if those assumptions aren’t reasonable, you’ll know it right away.

The best part of this is that it doesn’t require a human. Your brain is good enough at personifying inanimate objects that explaining a concept to another human who simply isn’t replying is functionally interchangeable with explaining it to a rubber duck. So, a lot of programmers explain concepts to rubber ducks (or stuffed rabbits, in my case) instead of inconveniencing fellow humans.

So. What is rubber duck debugging? It’s using your brain’s powers of explanation and personification to fix logic problems.

Rubber duck debugging is hardly the exclusive domain of programmers. Anybody who can use language can explain something to a rubber duck (I don’t even have to say “anybody who can speak”, because I’m sure rubber ducks understand sign language). Writers do it to fix problems with their story plot, for example.

So if you’re ever working on a tricky problem, try stepping back and explaining it to a rubber duck.

The Value of “Just” Showing Up

My siblings are pairs skaters. Every day, they wake up at 5am to skate for three hours. Sometimes, after returning home to do school and work, they return to the ice rink to skate again. Even when they don’t skate twice a day, they frequently do an off-ice workout in the afternoon. They’re devoted. They’re serious.

Still, they’re hardly the best team out there. They are now at the third-highest level, and will stop being competitive before advancing, because they started late. Unlike many skaters, who devote all their time to the sport, my siblings have significant academic commitments which they refuse to sacrifice to spend more time on the ice.

And yet, they get to Nationals. Recently, even, a few internationals. They didn’t expect it, but it happened. How?

They “just” showed up.

Putting in the effort every single day to keep up with the blistering pace of competitive figure skating is hard. The age brackets for the levels work such that if you’re not putting in as much effort as my siblings are, you just plain don’t get to be competitive. Sorry, have a nice day! The requirements for pairs are even harder, because not just one, but two skaters have to be devoted enough to put that much time in. Not only that, both of them need to be good at doing jumps – if you’ve ever watched the Olympics on TV, you know jumping is hard.

My siblings get national and international assignments, because they are one of less than twelve pairs teams at their level in the country. They show up. There’s no “just” about it.

They say it’s not enough to just show up. But is that really true? To “just” show up, you need to have the necessary skills to get in the door, you need to be reliable and consistent, you need to be able to put in the work every day. That’s valuable. That’s important. And those are skills a lot of people don’t have.

When people hunt for jobs, the focus is on the job-specific skills: what programming languages do they know, how proficient are they with Excel, do they have the appropriate certifications, etc. And those are important. But many job-seekers act as if those things are all that matters.

In reality, being reliable and dependable is just as important. There are tons of people who have the job-specific skills, but who aren’t reliable. They get tired, they get bored, they see a shiny object, they would rather be doing something else. They don’t show up. If you “just” show up, you can be better than them.

Show up.

The Painter On His Way to Paint

For this piece, I copied this Van Gogh painting for the most part. However, I decided that I would add in Van Gogh himself, on his way to paint the piece.

To properly represent both Van Gogh’s painting and likeness, I wanted to do a copy not only in subject matter but in art style and technique. As such, I painted this in oils using a palette knife (like the one on the right in this pic). In total, I only used two tools for this: a palette knife, and the small paintbrush I used to sign it.

I worked back-to-front: I painted the sky first, followed by the distant landscape, then worked forward until I finished with Van Gogh himself. Since things in the back are overlapped by things in the front, I painted the things in the back first and painted the closer things over top of them.

Painting Van Gogh in there was hard, but not for the reasons you might think. I’m very solid at figure drawing, so drawing a human was pretty easy. The problem arose from trying to paint Van Gogh in his own style, when he wasn’t a central part of the piece. He did self-portraits (actually he did tons), but he painted himself as the center of those pieces. Here, I was trying to paint him small, as almost an afterthought.

As such, I tried to copy Van Gogh’s style of drawing figures, with not a lot of success. At first I did him in the style of his self-portraits, but it was too detailed and realistic. I was very happy with this first version artistically, but it didn’t fit so I scrubbed it out. I tried to get some vibrant highlights and shadows in the second version, but that still didn’t quite fit stylistically. Finally, I just blocked in some color and gave it an immensely simple white outline where the light was coming from. That seemed to do it, so that’s the finished version.


This painting is for sale! Get it now for $250 plus shipping. If you’re interested, contact me!

Why My Rabbi Asked, “Who Here is an Atheist?”

One morning in autumn many years ago, I was sitting in synagogue with my family. My granddad used to drag us there when he came over for the high holidays. Most of the service was spent on ritual prayers and readings in Hebrew, so I wasn’t paying much attention.

That is, until my rabbi asked a very odd question. “Who here is an atheist? Please raise your hands.”

I blinked in confusion as I watched the hands go up around me. From my vantage point (standing on top of the chair so I could see when the rabbi blew the shofar, which was always my favorite part of every service), I could see that maybe three-quarters of the synagogue had put their hands up.

Seeing the hands of my family raised around me as an indication that it was socially acceptable to do so, I put mine up as well. None of us had ever really believed the God stuff, after all, but I’d always thought we were a minority in this respect. Evidently not.

The rabbi nodded. Though his speech has eroded in my memory, it went something like this. “Faith is a tool to be used towards the goal of doing good deeds. If you wish to use that tool, you may; though I see many of you are not in need of it. But all of us must remember that it is just a tool. If you have all the faith and love for God in the world, but you are cruel to your fellow man, you are not a good Jew. You cannot fall into the Christian trap of worshipping the tool in absence of its purpose; you would not praise a hammer except for its ability to pound in nails.”

I came away from this with the realization cemented in my mind that Judaism is not fundamentally a religion. It is fundamentally an ethnicity and a culture.

If Judaism were primarily a religion, it would have some pretty major problems. For one, Jews aren’t allowed to proselytize: that thing that Christians do where they try to convert you to Christianity, we can’t do that. Nowhere in our holy books does it say that you’ll go to Hell if you’re not a Jew. And the reason for that is another reason that Judaism wouldn’t work well as a major religion: converting to Judaism is really hard. The two main ways of converting are marrying a Jew and being adopted by a Jewish family.

If you look at Judaism as a culture and ethnicity that simply arose from a religion, though, these things make sense. The quality of “Jewish-ness” is within my family, within my bloodline, and unless I choose to marry or adopt you (either of which would add you to my family), I can’t convert you.

Further, all Jews have what’s called right of return. Since I have it, I would be able to immigrate to Israel and gain Israeli citizenship if I wanted to, because it is my homeland, albeit indirectly. This right couldn’t exist if Judaism were much of anything besides an ethnicity.

Because Judaism isn’t primarily a religion, being a good Jew is the same thing as being a good person in general: be kind, don’t break just laws, have good morals, etc. Again, this makes pretty intuitive sense: we can’t be judged against our faith, so the only thing we can be judged against is our morality.

By contrast, when you have an actual religion (I’m going to use Christianity as an example, but I’m not picking on Christians; many religions work this way), there tends to be a problem with morality. A good Christian is someone who puts their love of God first. But sometimes, people tack “to the exclusion of all else” onto the end of that sentence, and the religious leaders don’t seem to mind. Actually, frequently the people who think that way are the religious leaders.

As a result, you have a lot of Christians (some of whom I’ve met) who say they follow Christ, but who seem to have completely missed the whole “love thy neighbor” thing. They were praised for their faith instead of for being a good person.

But, as my rabbi said, you shouldn’t praise the tool in absence of its purpose. Don’t praise faith in absence of its ability to help you be kind.

Explain Your Culture

I answered a lot of questions about culture growing up. As an American Jew, my culture was a minority, so nobody really knew about it. They didn’t know what I believed, what foods I ate on what holidays, what purpose those foods or those holidays had within the culture, etc.

Like many people in minority cultures, I was always happy to answer these questions. My family has had several non-Jews over for our holidays over the years, and when our goyish (informal term for non-Jewish) guests inevitably ask questions about the rituals or foods, we tell them. Once time I brought in kosher macaroons to work for Rosh Hashanah and I got to explain both the holiday and the concept of kosher.

These are highly informal and easy explanations. Our goal isn’t to proselytize—Jews aren’t allowed to proselytize anyway, but even if it was allowed, that’s not our goal so we wouldn’t do it—our goal is simply to educate. For example:

“This little funny hat is called a yarmulka, and men are supposed to wear it to bring them closer to God. Women don’t need to wear them because the ability to give birth brings us closer to God.”

“We prepare these foods because they’re culturally significant, or just because we like them. But we need to make sure that if we make something just because we like it, that it follows our dietary rules for holidays. Those rules are called kosher.”

“Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year. Our holidays run on a lunar calendar, not a solar one, so they shift around on the Christian calendar. And the current Jewish year is 5779, because our years don’t start from the birth of Jesus, they start from the birth of the Jewish race.”

Christians in America have it completely the opposite way. They can practically assume that their culture is ubiquitous, which has a lot of implications.

If your culture is ubiquitous, you never have to explain your holidays. You can just presume that people know about them. You can talk in depth about highly specific issues with just about anyone, because you can presume they have the necessary cultural background. Every business closes its offices in observation of your holidays.

To help my American Christian pals understand what it’s like to not be a cultural majority, consider this.

Imagine you had to ask your boss for time off to celebrate Christmas, which he has never heard of. Imagine driving over an hour to get to the only church in your area, when at the same time there are three different synagogues within a two-mile radius of your house. Imagine your entire culture decides to make Labor Day into a huge celebration, because you’re all sick of not doing anything while the rest of the country celebrates Rosh Hashanah. (This is exactly what happened with Chanukah. It’s actually a very minor holiday that American Jews made into a much bigger deal because they wanted something to do at Christmastime.)

Unless you decide to move to a non-European country, you’re probably not going to experience any of this personally, but that’s fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right about being a member of either a majority or minority culture.

There is, however, one thing that members of majority cultures could learn from members of minority cultures: an attitude of explanation.

Growing up Jewish, I never really understood Christianity. Not for any lack of Christians around me, for a lack of Christians around me who were willing to answer questions. People in majority cultures aren’t used to answering simple questions about their culture; if I asked who Jesus was, people would look at me like I’d just said I’d never heard of toilet paper. In their eyes, I’ve just said I don’t know about something they thought was both ubiquitous and completely impossible to live without. By contrast, however, I’ve had a ton of people ask me who Moses is.

Similarly basic question, different culture.

But if every member of a majority culture has this attitude, then the small percentage of the population that wasn’t raised with that culture is left out of the loop. They didn’t learn about the culture growing up, and they never will.

So, the best thing to do if you’re a member of a majority culture is to be willing to answer questions. Even questions that seem like they ought to be obvious.

How to Write a Value Proposition

How much do you like getting things you want for free? Probably a lot.

A value proposition makes a business owner want to hire you by giving them something they want for free.

It’s really that simple. And it’s the best way of getting a job, because it’s the best way of getting an employer to like you.

Most people don’t write value props because they’re not willing to put in the necessary work. But there are still some people who are willing to put in the work, but since they don’t write good value props, they don’t get to.

I really can’t fix the former problem—that’s a self-motivation issue—but I can help fix the latter. So here goes.

A good value prop is clear and concise. Most value propositions are emailed, and busy business owners or hiring managers have negative eleven minutes to answer email. Make answering yours easy. Write short sentences and short paragraphs. Don’t include too many parentheticals. Be specific and direct, and don’t use the passive voice.

And for the sake of all that is beautiful in the universe, don’t make typos. Typos in any professional email don’t say “I’m not a writer.” They say “I don’t give a shit about you.” The Grammarly app is good at catching most spelling and grammar mistakes (though I’ve noticed it has a bit of a hard time recognizing the grammatical correctness of general nouns).

On top of making your writing style clear, make your actual points just as clear. You want a job, right? Say so. After you’re done making your value prop, say something like Charlie Hoehn did: “In exchange for these things, I hope that you’d consider taking me on as an intern (real-world or virtual). I would love to help you out on future projects. Let me know what you think, and I look forward to hearing from you.” Be this clear and direct about everything you say.

It doesn’t make the recipient feel defensive. One of the key principles of sales is that you never want your prospect to feel Not-OK in any way. So when you write a value prop, never say that their existing product sucks (even if it objectively does). It could have been designed by the owner’s son. Instead of saying it sucks, say it could be better.

Overall, your attitude about your recipient should be positive, and that includes your attitude toward their current product.

It has a clear demonstration of, well, value. Say exactly what you’re going to do for them. “You’re not utilizing Facebook ads for marketing, I can run an ad campaign.” “You’re not marketing on Craigslist, I can do that for you.” “You don’t have a personalized website, I can code it for you.” Whatever it is that you can do for them, spell it out.

It shows projects, not credentials. For them to take you seriously, you’re going to need to demonstrate that you can do what you say you can. But tell me, if you’re a business owner and you want to know whether I can really code a good website for you, which of these would you prefer to see?

“I have many years of experience with web programming (including detailed knowledge of the inner workings of HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, and SQL) as well as web design, and I’ve both designed and built a number of websites previously, including a website for a non-profit called Speset.”

“I built the Speset website using PHP and CSS. The mailing list I added using MailChimp currently has over 100 subscribers, with no marketing besides the existence of the website.”

The former tells you what I can do. The latter shows you. It is always better to show instead of telling. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in the same way, a project is worth a thousand sentences.

You should only tell them something if they can’t feasibly know it just by looking at the project. (Ex. my details about the number of subs to the mailing list and the languages I used to program the website.)

It has a very small and specific ask. Remember, these people are crazy busy. Don’t ask them to think of ways they could use your help. Come up with ways you could help them, then tell them about those ways.

Overall, a good value prop makes it easy for the recipient to say yes. When you’re writing anything, says Isaac Morehouse, founder of Praxis, “you want to make it as easy as possible for your readers to do what you want them to do. Whether it’s understanding an idea, whether it’s taking a specific action, whether it’s emailing you back, make it easy for them.”

Value Proposition Example

Here’s a value prop I wrote to the board of directors at my local skating club (the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club, or PFSC). Their website is pretty atrocious, so I wrote about how I could improve it.

Dear Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club Board members,

My family and I have been members of the PFSC for many years, and I frequent your website for information about club news and events. I’ve noticed two ways in which your website could be improved to better provide its services.

First, your current WordPress theme isn’t optimal for your website. The PFSC color scheme is black and gold, as anyone can see if they go to Skate Pittsburgh, but the website’s color scheme is primarily mint green and dark blue.

I would fix this by either modifying your existing WordPress blog or by creating a brand-new website for you from scratch. I’ve created several blogs using WordPress, including the one on my personal website. Additionally, I’ve designed and developed several websites, such as Speset and Ellis Wyatt.

Second, while the site contains a wide variety of interesting and useful content, it could be better organized. For example, the landing page contains information about the club’s history, recent news, and congratulations.

I would rewrite and/or reorganize your content so your visitors could navigate your site better. For example, I would reorganize the content on your landing page into several separate pages, then write a cohesive introduction for your landing page that welcomes both potential and current club members.

Throughout this process, I would involve you in my design decisions so I can make sure you end up with a website you love.

Lastly, I would be happy to provide you with a significant discount on my normal rates, since I’d like to help the club.

Let me know! I look forward to hearing from you.

– Jenya Lestina

This may not be the perfect value prop, but that’s the point. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. And once it is good, put it out there. One published sentence is worth ten novels sitting on your hard drive.