"I got to thinking one day about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to 'cut back.' From then on, I've tried to be a little more flexible."
(Erma Bombeck)

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Cyber friends are people, too

For many years, I’ve participated in a graphic design forum on the internet where I’ve forged friendships with people from around the world. We have critiqued one another’s projects, asked for and offered advice--both personal and professional--debated politics and religion, shared jokes, and learned about the latest trends in graphic design.

The Graphic Design Forum was an internet community before Facebook was a gleam in its creators’ eyes. It was a place to commiserate with like-minded designers--fledgling, professional, or otherwise. Much of what I know about design, I learned from the advice of the industry veterans on the forum who were willing to share their expertise with me. I learned about design, business practices, job problems, and more. The guidance I received from the forum was priceless. Best piece of advice? Never work without a contract.

Over time, I came to know these people as if they were part of my own family. I remember when Tom’s girlfriend broke up with him, when Ronnie lost a big project to his competitor, and the name of Celia’s cat. Our relationships became so familiar that, in 2006, we decided to meet in Seattle for our first get-together. It was the high point of my year.

One of the most popular features on the forum was the “Water Cooler” section where no topic was off-limits. You could count on finding the perennial “Mac vs. PC” debate, the “CorelDraw vs. Illustrator” showdown, jokes, griping, and more.

Here’s an example of a response to the inquiry, “Anybody care to share some mistakes you’ve made lately?”

One designer/print shop owner/volunteer firefighter in Illinois responded:

“Let's see . . . 50 out of 500 business cards with a price of $47 on the card and it was suppose to be $48. I caught the problem before all were printed.

Mispelled a word . . . caught it before it went to print.

Had three flyers jam up in my laminating machine. Just needed to get one done right. Aaahhhh, the smell of laminating material burning away in a machine . . .

Told my wife her butt looked big in a certain pair of pants. SHE ASKED! Probably the biggest mistake of the year.”

You can imagine the grief he took over that one (something along the lines of, “DUDE!!!!!! Where was YOUR brain????? Were you totally mad????”).

Lord help the newbie who tried to enter the forum without showing the proper amount of deference to the veteran designers. Some days, it was fun to just sit back and read the exchanges, especially when the designer from Toronto—who I correctly diagnosed with ADHD (his wife verified it for him)—lambasted the unsuspecting schmuck who questioned his abilities. (he had done several successful advertising campaigns for major companies.) It was kind of like watching a train wreck—you braced for the inevitable smash-up, while you sat back and enjoyed the entertainment. Many a time I almost spewed my morning drink on my monitor at some of the things that were said.

Via the forum, I had several very thought-provoking exchanges with “Matt-The-Atheist” in Canada, learned about headcoverings and web design from Digi (an American convert to Islam), and read about Jewish traditions from Jill in Israel.

Had a bad day at work? The forum was the place to vent. More than that, it was a place in cyberspace where we could be ourselves without fear of rejection (well, most of the time).

The 2004 presidential election brought out the passions in everyone (George Bush vs. John Kerry). It goes without saying (at least to me), that most graphic designers lean to the left of the political spectrum. However, there were a few glaring exceptions on the forum, myself being one. The debates got so heated that the forum moderator finally had to call an end to all political discussion. I actually had one member question how I could be “creative” and “conservative” at the same time. She honestly could not fathom the two going together. It was an educational experience for all of us.

In 2006, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Canada. We incorporated a stop at a small print shop in Nanaimo so that I could pop in and surprise Matt-the-Atheist for our first personal encounter (see photo, above).

It was a memorable experience. I’ll never forget the look on Matt’s face when he saw me. He knew me before I opened my mouth. Funny how a 100 by 150 pixel photo so easily communicates a person’s essence. We chatted and posed for pictures before it was time for us to hit the road. And, though we never convinced one another of our opposing worldviews, Matt and I had a mutual affection and respect that only comes from years of getting to know one another.

You may be wondering why I’m waxing sentimental about my design forum experience. Well, just as I was getting ready to leave for a follow-up appointment at Swedish Cancer Institute last Monday, I received an email about the wife of one of my forum friends, forwarded from another forum member. Here’s the original email that was forwarded to me:

“We are in a hospital room tonight. Dawn has terminal stage 4 cancer. It spread through her body during pregnancy. She had a spot of melonoma removed in September and we thought it was gone. Unfortunately, her being pregnant limited how deep they could look for other areas of cancer. She started getting sick a few weeks ago and last Tuesday an MRI revealed two tumors in her brain plus swelling. Luckily, they were able to deliver our son Thursday via C-Section and he is healthy. Unfortunately, Dawn has taken a very fast decline since. Right now we are keeping her comfortable but she won't be leaving the hospital with me.”

I hardly knew what to say. As the news was relayed to the forum members on the email list, we decided that we needed to do something supportive. It will probably involve collecting funds to assist our friend in the days to come.

And, even though I don't know him as well as others, it has weighed heavily on my mind this week, especially as I visited my oncologist for a follow-up. My appointment was fairly routine. The lab technician asked if I was there for treatment or just lab work. I felt thankful to be able to say, "No, I finished treatment a year ago."

When I finished with the blood work and exam, I headed with my husband to Starbucks for a "treat." I stood in line at Starbucks with tears in my eyes, thinking of another person far away who was succumbing to the disease I had just beaten (at least, so far). I've always known that life isn't fair, but it seemed especially poignant as I contemplated our two situations.

There’s no way to explain the tragedy of his wife’s position. Oh sure, I could get all flowery and talk about the fall of man, how sin entered the world, and how the consequences are sickness and death. Somehow, when you’re experiencing a tragedy like this, or the one in Haiti, it doesn’t seem especially helpful. There will be time to think about that later.

For now, our fellow forum member will be raising two children on his own. He’s going to need a lot of assistance. If you’re reading this, I ask that you pray for him.

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