Sunday, July 30, 2017

Cover for Julia Stoops' Parts per Million


Recently, I was privileged to design the front cover for Julia Stoops' novel Parts per Million, due out in April of 2018.



Parts per Million is a fast-moving novel full of fascinating characters and loads of relevance. The manuscript was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Here's what publisher Forest Avenue Press has to say:

When John Nelson abandoned his government job to join a scrappy band of activists, he didn’t realize trying to save the world would be so hard. His ideals remain strong, but his optimism is wearing thin. His fellow activists—computer hacker Jen Owens and Vietnam vet Irving Fetzer—still think he’s a square. And their radio show can’t compete with the corporate media.

Parts per Million, Julia Stoops’s socially conscious, fast-paced debut novel, is set in Portland, Oregon, in 2002. As the trio dives into anti-war protests and investigates fraud at an elite university, Nelson falls in love with an unlikely house guest, Deirdre, a photographer from Ireland—and a recovering addict. Fetzer recognizes her condition but keeps it secret, setting off a page-turning chain of events that threatens to destroy the activists’ friendship even as they’re trying to hold the world together, one radio show at a time.

As well as being a fantastic writer, Julia is a fine artist. I'm in love with Julia's art! It's ethereal and geometric and gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Check out her work here

As an artist, Julia had a vision for her book that included interior illustrations, and publisher Laura Stanfill loved the idea. Julia chose artist Gabriel Liston to create the art. Gabriel is a fabulous artist who shows with Froelick Gallery in Portland. Check him out here. Julia and Gabriel are hard at work on the illustrations for Parts per Million now, consulting closely so that the end result is as close to Julia's vision for the book and its characters as possible. 


Together, and with the help of consultant Kristi Wallace Knight, they've mounted a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the artwork. Check it out here. There are more fabulous art samples like the one above, and more info about the project. For folks interested in supporting the project, there are some really amazing and unique thank you gifts, including zines, patches, original illustrations, even professional feedback for writers by publisher Laura Stanfill!

There are 13 days left to go for the Kickstarter campaign, and they are already well on their way to meeting their goal.

I can't wait to see the book in its finished form with Julia's lovely writing and Gabriel's lovely illustrations and Laura's great interior design work. The book will hit the shelves in April of 2018. Here's a taste!

So unbelievable. We get home from a big firebombing only to play host-with-the-most with some random stranger. What the hell was Franky thinking? He’s a goddamn house sitter, not a hotel manager. Of course Nelson, being ambassador from planet Dork, is into it right away. And Fetzer caved in like five minutes! Bunch of rescuers.

The woman Frank so generously invited into our headquarters stands in the doorway, looking around like she’s hungry and there might be a buffet conveniently laid out somewhere among the filing cabinets and desks.

“Stay there,” I tell her. Last thing I need is her snooping through our stuff.

Fetzer stands in the middle of the basement with his gut sticking out and his hands on his hips. “She can go over here,” he says, and walks down to the end, like we’re supposed to follow. There’s that old camp cot against the wall. He eyes the pipes along the ceiling and strokes his chin. “We could string wire, rig up curtains. Out of sheets.”

“What for?” I say.

His voice goes quiet as I get closer. “She’ll want privacy. I have a feeling she’ll be here more than one night.”

“Nope. No way.”

He picks up a stack of folders off the cot, then looks back at her leaning in the doorway with her arms folded tight. “She’s sick, see?”


On his birthday: early journal entries about my brother Frank, with spelling errors intact and my own commentary in green


1979
December 31—Frank and Mom found a stray puppy and brought it home a month or something after Gertrude died. But we aren't going to keep the stray. I call her Shoepolish.

1981
September 19—Today we went to see the play "West Side Story." It was great. We got autographs like we did in Oklahoma. We had almost the same seats, In front. At the rumble where the 2 leaders are supposed to be dead Frankie yelled out (during silence) "Are they dead?" [He shouted this in the theater during the dramatic silence following the two men falling dead. The whole theater burst out laughing and I remember one of the dead actors on stage trying not to laugh.]

1982
September 30—Edina's birthday. We went to the French Pantry for Edina's birthday. Alaine (a waitress) teaches sign language. She gave us name signs. Mine's an "E" (left hand) rubbing my right arm. (I like to make music). Edina is 2 "E"s signing "talk". Frankie is an "F" with the 3 last fingers chomping the thumb for Pac-Man.

December 7—The McLittle Theatre is going to do "Best of Friends" in Feb. when noni & Coco come out. I'm Jenni. Frankie's Jonathan, Heather's Susan Evans, Edina's Dad, Shena's Mom & Mara's Mary. & I just can't wait! It was soooo! windy at night!!!! [The McLittle Theatre was what we called ourselves when we did plays and made the parents watch. Of note here is that Frank played Jonathan, a character who died pretty close to the beginning of the play, and my sister Edina got stuck playing the dad.]

1983
January 1—It is now 1983. [I wrote the number 3 at the stroke of midnight.] Happy New Year! I resolve to be a nicer, more outward person. I am a shyish person, but I resolve to become less shy. We had a party at my cousin Heather's lake house. It was my family, Heather's & the Macys. We took a boat ride & had a foot ball pool. Frankie & Ev Macy won!!! When we went to the dock there was slush on the ground!!!! (This is California!) I prayed for snow & in a way I got it!

February 3—Gayle of course wasn't at school today. I hung around with Julie Davenport & Kristin at lunch. They wanted me to play a mean trick on Frankie. I didn't.

February 24—The rapid precipitation and thunder and lightening were simultanious at around 3:00 today. Frankie and I ran to the van, the rain pouring around us. I had double warmth because of the use of my 2 coats. Gayle wasn't at school so I remained solitary untill she arrived. We had bells and during it, a drill for earthquakes but there wasn't the slightest tremor. Gayle & I talked about dumbfounding & stupefying dreams we'd had. After school we had hot chocolate. It had an aromatic eroma and was sensationally delicious and warm with cream on top. I played video games on coleco and helped Frankie with homework. Through it all, I deduce, precicely that it was a fairly chaotic day but alittle chaos makes the eazy easier.

March 1 Today I went outside & sang in the rain. I sang the song "Here comes the rain" that I made up on Feb. 27th and just (from that) sang anything I thought of (about the rain). I'll always sing. My life is like a musical. A long time ago I sang a circus song. Frankie & his friend were making a circus for Heather & I to see. I got up and starting singing about what you need for a circus. Heather joined in on a 2nd verse and we sang just like a musical. I loved it. I've sang about what to do (A song called "What shall we do today", I've sang about when Mom wouldn't understand me (A song called "What do you mean by that) etc. I always just sing. My life is a musical.

April 10—I went to Shena's. We watched 3 movies. The Incredible Shrinking Woman", "Somewhere in Time" & "Annie." I did a large sermon outline. We have 2 new games. "Oink" & "Space Panik" I played "Star Wars" with Frankie.

May 10—I went to the orthodontist. I got an impreshion of my teath, learned all about what they're going to do. Shena came over. We started talking over "old times." Frankie went to the SanDiego Wild Animal Park. At the bird show a bird took a dime out of his hand. In the cat & canine show a dog took a necklace from him. In the elephant he lied down while an elephant crouched over him.

May 15—We (Shena & I) had 2 doughnuts each when we came to my house to get some Atari cartages to play at Shena's house. I went with Shena & Peg shopping for a shirt for Shena to wear to model some homemade pants in a fashion show. At home, we had (my family) strawberry-short-cake for dessert. Frankie & Edina got new bikes. Frankie is trying to learn how to ride his. I saw "An Officer & a gentleman" again.

May 21—Today was really part work, part play. (The play part was more) I finnished cleaning out my clothes. I cleaned out my room & vacuumed it. I listened to my play tape reciting my lines 2 ½ times. Afterwards Dad, Frankie & I went to the park to help Frankie ride his bike. When we came home it was time to swim. Frankie & I swam. Mom came in once. In the morning Edina, Frankie & I went to yum yum's for doughnuts. We walked. As I walked down the sidewalk I felt the love in the morning air. I saw 2 "planet of the Apes" movies.

May 25—At school today during P.E. a giant swarm of bees swarmed around the play ground. I had a good piano lesson. A kid in Frankie's class (Matt) punched Frankie & he hit the ground on his chin. He (Frankie) now has a big bump on his chin. He also, at home, got stung by a bee. What a day he must have had!

June 9—I did my science project & got a 97. I said an extemporaneous speech about Frankie.

June 10—The 8th grade got our year books today. I got it signed by alot of people. In the back Mom had "Roses are Red violets are blue Gigi graduated - yahoo; yahoo!" put in & "Edina & Frank did good too….".

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Anatomy of a birthday card: July, 2017


Sometimes when Stephen and I do birthday or anniversary cards for each other, we're able to take an image and simply change the faces out with our own or update in small ways. Sometimes one of us gets a bee in her bonnet and has to collage something together using more than one or two images. This year, I had an idea to have Stephen in a garden with a paintbrush, painting flowers into existence. When I googled to look at initial images of pretty women (because, you know) in gardens, I came upon all these old fabulous illustrations for seed packets and catalogues.






There wasn't a single that suited me best, so I created my card by cobbling together pieces of different illustrations.

For the outside...


...and...


And for the inset...



The backgrounds and flowers came from the first two illustrations (one of which, you'll notice, isn't a seed packet or catalogue but a farm annual) (incidentally from a company who shares names with Stephen's grandmother on his mother's side, the one who was a great influence on him, encouraging him to be an artist; it was one of her married names... she had a few... she led a very interesting life. Stephen wrote blog posts about  Elizabeth Pennington Foster Matson Alberts Dahm Burpee here and here) (where was I?) (to get you up to speed, I started this sentence saying the backgrounds and flowers came from the first two illustrations...) and I cobbled together the wording from the wording on these as well. Then with the inset illustration, I had to expand the area of the peas and that took more cobbling. As did photoshopping out background lettering and details and expanding the space of the outside backgrounds. So, yeah, this card took a good long time.

The illustration for the inset, interestingly, is an ad for a stove company. But it worked great as a stand-in for one of those insets of impeccably-dressed ladies in the garden. I'll admit, I allowed Stephen's face to be probably a tad larger than it should have been. It was small enough as it was and, with making him a woman, I was losing clarity and recognizability when I reduced it, particularly for the printing of the card, and the primary goal is to create something that is Stephen.

The image I used for his face was an outtake from a Madeleine Prévert photo session:


We drove out to the Oregon Country Fair for his birthday yesterday, and had a picnic breakfast of sandwiches and cava in the parking lot as we waited for the fair to open, and he opened his card then.


He was surprised when I told him a little bit about the process and told me it looked like I'd just put his face on a single illustration, so whew, I knew I'd done what I'd set out to do. But if you want to see something really pretty, you should see Stephen's little flower garden along the side of the house, the first of much more gardening to come for our still new home.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day journal entries early in my life (or the entries from the dates most close to Father's Day) with spelling errors intact and my own commentary in green


1978
June 8—A Boy was wating water and throwing rocks at Me Mara and Edina.
In my early days, I often only wrote once or twice a month. Most of these early year entries are not on Father's Day but whatever came closest. I have no idea what wating is supposed to mean. 

1979
June 27—I got a permonent (perm) my first.

1980
There was no June entry at all for 1980.

1981
June 14—Today I'm 12. I got a radio and a disk. I also got a bra but it's the wrong size so I have to change it. I still nead to change my personality at school. Maybe everyone will forget it, and I can start over next year. Wish me luck!
No Father's Day entries yet, but I was sure not to forget writing on my birthday.

1982
Ah, the first actual father's day I wrote on - yay!
June 20—I got 2 new coins from Isriel, from Shena for my collection.
OK, so no mention of Father's Day or Dad. Sorry, Dad. 

1983
June 19, 20, 21—I was at home at Heathers and back home again. I saw Heathers new house. I finished Marna and started Misty.
Annnd another entry that encompasses Father's Day that didn't mention Dad at all. I found time to write about the two stories I was working on (because obviously I was a great writer) but I couldn't find the time to sneak in a "Happy Father's Day"? Hey, Dad, did I mention I'm sorry?

1984
June 19. Alot has happened since my last entry. On Friday, we had our last Amnesty meeting [the one club I was in, in high school, Amnesty International]. I had to say goodbye to Jason Lamm, who was the one we always called mouth, and Kevin who we called Speady Gonzales and Tim, and Bob and that red-haired kid who's always there. Of course, I'd see Paul today. Over the weekend, I met Heather's friend, Chelle. She's really neat and we all had a great time. I had my algebra final yesterday (I bombed) and World Cultures (C) and English (?) today. On Friday night I was really angry. I had a period. I had to say goodbye to Mr. Ward, today. On Friday, he gave me, as a gift and a reminder of everything, one of his lunch bags & he autographed it. I gave him a short letter today thanking him and telling him how beneficial it has been having him as a teacher & a friend. On the weekend we found an injured duck & today we found a baby bird. We took the duck to the wild animal care center & the bird's still here.
OK, am I ever going to bother mentioning my poor, neglected father in here AT ALL? For the love of god. This is supposed to be a blog post about my dad! How can I do that if I spent my entire childhood being an ingrate of a daughter?

1985
OK, finally! Jeez! Here's the first time I get an actual Father's Day entry in my youthful career as a journaler. Better make it count!
June 18, morning— Day before yesterday was, infact, a most peculiar day. Peculiar? Well, filled. I can say that for it. It was a very filled day.

First, I did a little writing. I wrote a little card-thing for dad. It read:

“F is for the fairness you give

to us when we fight.

A is your amusing humor,

R is you’re always right.

T is for your teaching us;

always do your best.

E is for just everything

R is for the rest.

Happy Farter’s Day.”

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Dispatches from the pet hospital, the book launch, the design awards, and more; or, A very full week


Actually a week and a half, because while I was thinking about how full one week could be, another half week went by.

Sometimes all that happens in your week is that you set up an air conditioner and a couple of book cases. Then a new week starts and a Monday work day is followed by the seemingly mundane fact of a small bit of foam on the floor of your office upstairs. I said to Stephen, kind of jovial: "Someone yorked on the carpet" and went to clean it up.

Tuesday, after at least two more, increasingly weighty pukes the night before and another I found in the morning, we were off to the vet where they took blood and X-rays. Nicholas wasn't eating and was in obvious distress. On the way to the vet, me in the passenger seat with Nicholas curled on my lap, I saw a billboard advertising a medical study to stop dogs from being poisoned, followed a little farther by a building off the freeway called something like Cherished Pets, touting itself as a "pet cremation and funeral center."

Wednesday. All tests negative and Nicholas still not eating, not drinking, looking up at me on shaky, spindly Chihuahua legs with tail tucked. The vet said go to Dove Lewis for an ultrasound. We knew Dove Lewis from the time, years ago, that Nicholas ate a bit of a dog toy and it lodged in his intestine and he had to have surgery, and this was looking scarily similar to that time. Driving to the place, Nicholas curled on my lap again, Stephen said, "Oh god, I never saw that before," passing by Cherished Pets.

Park the car, head up the pavement to the animal hospital. The wall along the walk is all individual bricks engraved with the names of beloved departed dogs and cats.

Green vomit on the floor of the animal hospital. Ultrasound. Animal Planet on silent on the big screen TV in the waiting room. Consultation in one of those little rooms, and yes: obstruction in the intestine. The very jolly animal doctor said, "We're going to get him into surgery and get that puppy out!" Would the vet really have said "puppy"? I don't know. That's how I remember it.

We were back to Northwest Neighborhood Veterinary where it just so happened to be our vet's surgery day. We left Nicholas there and Stephen dropped me off at work, where I looked at spreadsheets for about three hours and waited for Stephen to call from home saying the vet had called to let us know whether Nicholas had survived.

You can't help it. You look at the phone and picture the way it will ring and how Stephen's going to have to tell you the vet called and she's sorry, there was nothing she could do.

The photo on my computer desktop was Nicholas. I sent an email. The little profile picture in the corner of the message was Nicholas. I jumped on the project management program we use and made a comment on a to-do list of one of our graphic designers, and the little profile picture next to my comment was Nicholas.

I picked up my phone to check for messages in case something awful had happened and Stephen couldn't bear to call me and could only broach the subject in a text.


It was 6ish when the phone rang. Heart pounding. Stephen's "Hello!" was cheerful, so it must be OK. He said he'd called the vet and they were still in surgery, so he had to leave now to pick me up in time to get to the vet before they closed. We drove over. We waited. The girls behind the counter were all cheerful so it must be OK.

When they finally brought him out after surgery, Nicholas was belly-shaved and dopey, the tip of his tongue peeking out of his mouth. We took him back to Dove Lewis for an over-nighter, and drove home to sleep alone. I went to the store for comfort food and we sat in front of the TV and I ate half a frozen pizza.

Thursday. June 1, my nephew's 18th birthday. It was also the day they announced the PubWest Design Awards. Crazily, I won the gold in the small format cover design category for my book cover of Jamie Yourdon's novel Froelich's Ladder.

I'd never won anything before, except for the Easter egg coloring contest at the grocery store when I was a kid, and that time I'd tied for first place with a girl who made rainbow-colored starbursts all over her egg.

There was a link to the PubWest awards page, and people were sharing it on Facebook and I was so honored, but I couldn't concentrate on anything but Nicholas. When we brought him home, we took him out in the backyard to pee and he immediately threw up in the grass. The last time he had this surgery, the recovery was just as bad as the stress of the surgery itself, with lots of hours of doggy distress and a trip or two back to Dove Lewis because he seemed to be healing up so poorly.

Dr. Prull said the critical thing in this first day after surgery was that he eat and keep it down. We gave him some of the special diet the vet gave us. He refused it. We let him rest. We gave him some of the special diet. He refused it.

Finally, Stephen called the vet and left the message that he wasn't doing well and wouldn't eat. I sat in my office upstairs with Nicholas at my feet in a nest made of his doggy bed covered in towels and blankets. The pain medication made him sleepy and he didn't seem to be in as much discomfort as the last time, but he wouldn't eat, which meant we couldn't give him his antibiotic and we thought for sure we'd be taking him back to Dove Lewis for the night.

I said to Stephen,"When she calls back, let's ask if we can try giving him cottage cheese," which was part of the bland diet they'd suggested before the surgery.

Stephen said, "Just try it."

So I did. And he ate it.

Joy. It wasn't until Nicholas started eating again that I finally shared the lovely news about the award. Clicking share was somehow like saying cheers and sipping champagne to Nicholas.


Friday. Saturday. Sunday. Me at my computer doing design work, sometimes with Nicholas in his nest on my lap, sometimes with him asleep at my feet. The ritualistic feedings, hiding pills, squirting antibiotic in his mouth with one of those syringes. At night Stephen slept in the bed and I slept upstairs curled up on three pillows on the floor with Nicholas in his nest next to me with the cone on. He had one of those blue cloth cones, but he still hated it, and I'd wake up here and there in the middle of the night always to find him lying, eyes open, staring at me.

Other bits of life happening around all of this. Our realtor gave us fresh cut peonies for a vase on our dining room table. I had a visit from writer Alex Behr with an advanced reader copy of her book Planet Grim and a handmade pillow as an extra thank you for the design work I did on her book cover. On facebook there were pictures of more advanced readers, this time for the second in Jeff Johnson's Darby Holland crime series, which I also did design work for. There were literary readings we couldn't go to. And protests and antiprotests in downtown Portland, and don't even get me started on politics, with tweets and covfefes heading into Comey's testimony.

Monday. Back to work while Stephen stayed home with Nicholas. It was the first time I'd left him since the surgery. At the door on the way out, Stephen made an impatient face before I could say anything and said, "Don't worry. I can take care of him." In the car, I put on my seat belt, switched on the radio and put the car in gear, one hand out instinctively to protect Nicholas, invisible, in the passenger seat, as I pulled out of the driveway.

From work, I emailed Stephen at two hour intervals asking for progress reports.

Tuesday was a scheduled day off because I was speaking to a graphic design class at PSU. It was a wonderful hour and a half in which I showed slides of various book covers and outtakes and told stories and took questions about inspiration and process and working with publishers. There were, oh, fifteen to twenty students, all eager and interested. They asked lots of great questions. It was fun to talk about my self-taught, DIY process, fun to tell them that they undoubtedly had more skills and knowledge, already, than I do and yet, look what I can do, meaning my gosh, look at what they can and will be able to do.

I told about the first time I used Adobe Illustrator: "I was so excited about the program, but there was something wrong with it! There was a pen tool but when I tried to draw with it, the line turned into this weird object, and there was an eraser, but it wouldn't erase anything in my pictures!"

Big laughs from these students who knew exactly what I meant. I felt glowy inside. These were my people.

Wednesday, a full week since the surgery. Nicholas in his bed on the kitchen floor as I cooked breakfast and lunch. His recovery was so much better than the time before. So much better. He rarely seemed uncomfortable. He rarely seemed at all interested in the incision place. I worked all day and then that night was the first time we left him alone by himself, to go out and celebrate Bradley K. Rosen and his novel Bunkie Spills.


I spent years in Tom Spanbauer's basement reading, critiquing, and having a love affair with that book as I sat next to Brad at the workshop table. Brad's reading that night at Powell's City of Books has got to be one of my favorite book launches ever. (Thank you to Laura Stanfill for these pictures.)

One hundred plus people packed the place and Brad's reading was quirky and hilarious and heartfelt, and he had complete, self-deprecating command of the audience. Doug Chase's intro was perfect. Brad's entrance, playing a harmonica like Bunkie, was perfect. His "reverse moment of silence" where he got the whole crowd to holler admiration to Tom Spanbauer, was better than perfect.

And it was an evening of such community. His Dangerous Writing friends, other writing friends, musician friends, Oregon Country Fair friends, family.








So much to pack into little over a week. And more, still. Some things I feel jinxy to talk about, some things that I feel best to just give a quick line to because of their import. A loved one's pregnancy. A loved one's senior class project, which I just read. A loved one in the hospital. A loved one getting married (today) (now). Yesterday was the ten year anniversary of the death of Stephen's father, which I can't quite believe. Ten years. Last night we got together with the family and went around the room and talked about him and told stories. What everyone said: I'll just say it was beautiful.

Saturday now. Me on the computer. Nicholas curled up in his bed at my feet. This morning, as I slept in (in bed with Nicholas for the first time since the surgery) we had our first hummingbird visit to our garden.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

How to set up a Haier HPN10XCM portable air conditioner


Step 1: Heft thousand pound air conditioner up stairs to the furnace that is your office space.

Step 2: Turn on space heater which doubles as a fan and turn dial to Fan-Only so you roast just a little less while you work.

Step 3: Lay out all pieces and read instructions as to which piece is which, speaking each item out loud for maximum learnability.

Step 4: Sweat.

Step 5: Try to figure out how to fit three plastic things together to create "window panel assembly" to fit in window but window is tiny and there's no way all three panels together will fit in window. Two panels together (main panel plus one extension panel) will fit in window but instruction book doesn't say you can use two panels, only three, and you don't want to disobey instruction book. Try putting two panels in window. They fit, but the window opening is vertical, and when you let go of the two panels, the extension piece slides back down inside the first panel. (You have missed the part in the instruction book about using blunt-tip screws to secure panels together.)

Step 6: Read part in instructions instructing you to use enclosed strips of foam to cover edges of extension panels. Instruction book doesn't state whether  "edges" means long edges or short edges.

Step 7: Repeat step 4.

Step 8: Watch many YouTube videos. These videos will omit the part of the instructions you didn't understand where you can use the blunt-tip screws to secure panels together (which, in your defense, you missed because the vague language made it sound like the screws were to secure the panels to the window).

Step 9: Realize you've got the space heater set on Heat rather than Fan-Only and say the eff word and repeat sweat 4, I mean step 4.

Step 10: Finally understand the thing about the blunt-tip screws. Remove two blunt-tip screws from screws packet.

Step 11: Realize you forgot to stick the foam pieces to the edges of the plastic panels that will end up in a landfill someday with the rest of all this god-forsaken plastic stuff. Stick foam pieces on panels.

Step 12: The blunt-tip screws are now lost.

Step 13: See step 4. Also consider crying a little.

Step 14: Sit down and start to write a blog post about it because fuck it. And, hey, this is more fun. Feel proud of yourself and begin to gain a warm feeling of self-recognition.

Step 15: The window panel assembly is now lost. 

(You should really be a better housekeeper.)

Step 16: Locate window panel assembly and, miraculously, blunt-tip screws and take it all, with screwdriver (wow, you're a genius, you remembered to bring the screwdriver), to window. Sit in blast of hell from window and lay two-part assembly upright in window, being careful to keep panels fully extended, reach for first screw and – how the goddamn hell are you supposed to keep the panels extended and screw in the screw at the same time with only two hands? Every time you go to screw in the screw, the extension panel falls down. The screwdriver is one of those magnetized ones, and you try just using one hand for the screwing but then the fucking screw falls out. OK, fine, stick your fucking foot out through the fucking hole in the plastic window panel and use your fucking big toe to hold the works together while you use both hands to screw in the fucking screw.

This works.

As you go to secure the second screw, a crow dives in a black flash right past your window, passing so close you can see the feathers, swooping in a great arc toward the grass and then flying off into the sunny neighborhood.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

City of Weird contributor: Andrew Stark


I hadn't known Andrew Stark before accepting his story "A Code for Everything" for City of Weird. My reaction to his submission was one of those instant love affair things. I probably fairly knew I'd accept it from paragraph one. The story does all the things that make my brain happy. It's a wonderful mix of nerdiness and heart. It plays with science (yum) and and philosophy (yum) and language (yum), and is told through the lovely deadpan voice of a robot dog named Barney.

It's a story that took a little extra care for publisher Laura Stanfill to typeset as it contains phrases like:

w0+w1∑j=1tγt−jCRj+w2∑j=1tγt−jEVj+w3∑j=1tγt−jRPEj

and

産業技術総合研究所

Another example of the delicious nerdiness in the piece: Barney the robot dog and his companion (also named Barney) live in various homes throughout their life together, and Barney the dog describes each of these homes down to the exact latitude and longitude. As an example of just how nerdy I also am, when I was editing City of Weird, I created a Google map and plotted out every landmark and plot point I could think of in every story. It helped me to root out some errors in a couple of the stories and it allowed me to track how much of Portland I was covering, but mostly it was just me nerding out on this book I was gathering together. Along with finding and plotting out such City of Weird landmarks as Kelly's Olympian, the clock tower at the Amtrak station, Powell's City of Books, the Poppy Lounge, the unnamed haberdasher in Jonah Barrett's "Alder Underground," and the site of the former haunted Burger King on Burnside and Broadway (along with LOTS of other landmarks - I really nerded out), I was able to paste in such spots as:

45.522202° N, -122.618054° W in Laurelhurst

and

45.496224° N, -123.121649° W outside Forest Grove

and find out where Barney and Barney lived. And of course, these places were exactly where they were supposed to be.

"A Code for Everything" is the only story in City of Weird that unquestionably takes place in the future, and it is one of a handful of tales in the collection that would consistently make me cry.

Andrew was raised on the Ojibwa Indian Reservation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He has lived and worked in Chicago, Montana, Los Angeles, and Portland. I met him briefly when he lived in Portland during the creation period of the book, but by the time it was published, he'd moved out of state again.

His work has appeared in various publications, and he is co-founder of LOST WKND, the international literary arts and culture publication based in Minneapolis. You can check out LOST WKND here.

Recently Andrew's story "A Code for Everything" was one of four City of Weird pieces to be adapted into radioplays by Cynthia J. McGean, and produced and directed by Sam A. Mowry of Willamette Radio Workshop. The first live performance of these plays was on stage at the Kiggins Theater in Vancouver, Washington, and the pieces were beautifully adapted and performed. Sam A. Mowry, also a radio actor for WRW, gave an expert performance as Barney the robot dog, voicing him exactly as I have heard him in my head, and pacing the piece beautifully, getting lots of laughs from the audience and bringing the story to a heartfelt close.



The second and final live performance will be this Saturday, May 20, at 3 o'clock at the UFO Fest in McMinnville.

I didn't even know we had a UFO Fest! I'm excited.

In the meantime, here's a taste of Andrew Stark's lovely work:

The child, Barney, names me after himself. He seems timid at first, when his parents bring me back to their 2,350-square-foot Cape Cod at 45.522202° N, -122.618054° W in Laurelhurst. They walk me in and set me down. My olfactometer picks up 1,622 different odors, including jojoba in the woman’s perfume, and alarm pheromones emitting from the child. He peeks from around the corner; I wag my tail and yip. Although I understand fifty languages, my communication is limited to barks, howls, and mammalian semiosis. Eventually, he approaches and strokes my head. The tactile sensors lining my skull allow me to respond, and I close my eyes. Likewise, a number of sensory corpuscles near the surface of Barney’s hand send discriminative sensations traveling up the posterior columns in his spine and into the medial lemniscus of his brainstem, causing the electrical membrane potential of certain cells to rise and fall, opening channels and allowing for an inward flow of sodium ions. Once the sensations reach his medulla oblongata, a number of axons synapse with a number of neurons in his gracile and cuneate nuclei. He smiles.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day journal entries early in my life (or the entries from the dates most close to Mother's Day) with spelling errors intact


1978 
May 17—I went to a piano odition then out to lunch then to a supermarket.  i was in the Toy area with Shena and a cloun junped out and scared me.

1979 
May 15—Today we got out of school 12:00 AM.  Lené came to my house today.  Hector died.  He suffered.  We don't know why.  I'm getting a new one.
[Hector was a hamster.]  

1980
May 11—Today I got in another comercial.  I was a background. We made a mound of sand for friendly the wolf to sit on.  Shena, Heather, Tom, Edina, Mara, Ryan and I walked in the background while friendly the wolf talked.  We went home.  I watched video taped movies.
[The campground where we were camping was filming a commercial and we kids hung around and made a general nuisance of ourselves until they told us we could be in the background of the commercial in order to get us to go away. I was thrilled. Friendly the Wolf was a puppet.]

1981
May 23—Heather came over we went to Jan's and Sarah's house and there we rode ponies and rowboats.  Jan Struck works for Mom in the French Pantry, Sarah's her dauter.
[The French Pantry was my mom's restaurant.]

[bonus] May 27—Jamie got her period.  I'm jealous.  Mom says she'll get me some things just incase I do.  She might get me a bra soon too!

1982
May 9—We came home.  Shena & Mara are spending the night.  We got to listen to Beatle music in the car.

[bonus] May 19—I dreamed I went to Paul McCartney's house.  The Beatles were there.

1983
May 8—Happy Mother's Day!  We swam, sunbathed & played with frogs.  I was reading "Will there really be a morning?"  I saw the "Billie Jean" video like Mom wanted me to.  We came home.  We had more Heather presents.  Heather went home.  Mom, Edina, & I had a talk.  We had lobster for dinner.  Happy Mother's day.  I made mom a card with a picture of the "I [heart] you" sign on it.

1984
(May 7th)  I had my 1st period on Friday and Mom made a big deal about it.  I can understand why but still I didn't think it was any big thing.  I was raving at the time.  I was burning mad for many reasons that summed up to—life.  I was pounding my fists against my bed until I noticed I looked like a maniac.  I didn't know about my period until I sat down on the toilet.  We once again went up to the lake.  I began a book of short stories—I have finished now, 'Box of Forgotten Hope." 

1985
[When I talk about my "town," I'm talking about a game we used to play where we each created a town out of little toys and dolls. Lloyd Hailey and "the tooth brush one" and "Toybox" were stories I wrote.]
 I gave Mom a Beatles tape and we listened to it the whole way home—really loud, because Mom’s ears were plugged with a cold.  So, I was singing my loudest along with it.
            I brought home with me the tape on which I taped the music for my little “I don’t care” song.  I was listening to it.  It is somewhat better than my old songs on that tape of mine, but…
            I remember when my dream was to be a singer.  I actually thought I had it in me.  Oh God, was I wrong.
            I don’t understand my having that dream.  And, pieces of it still clutter up in my brain.  I still write my little songs, even record them.  And, what talent do I have?
            Oh, yeah!
            People used to tell me I had talent for music.  So, I took 6 years of piano lessons, took a tiny course in classical guitar, and thought I had it.  I wrote songs—slow ditties where I strummed my guitar and sung my little, un-trained throat out.  At best they were the style for the dippiest musicals.
            Well, now my style (what style?) is alittle better.  I have a beat now.  My few songs are less mellow.  But, still, I have nothing great.  And, I have an awful, untrained voice.  I can only strum my guitar and mess up chords.  I also use my Yamaha or the organ at the lake—so, I’m cheating.
            I’m begining to wonder what my talent is.  It is obviously not music—I can’t even dance.
            Writing?
            Right!
            How did I get started on that writing?  I made a play for my town called “Marna Terrace” and I could not do it that way because of the special effects needed.  So, I decided to write it, and Heather decided to join me and write one of her own.  Thus began my huge obsession with writing.
            Heck, I’ve got to face it.  Nothing I’ve written has been better than “Shows potential”.  The books I have scrawled down in my little journal books are all awful.  “Lloyd Hailey” has been disregarded.  My little toothbrush one won’t win—no way.  And I don’t even want to look at “Toybox.”
            I wrote a poem for Mom for Mother’s day, as I usually do.  It went something something, something… these things make up motherhood…  It was really stupid.  When she read it outloud, I had to leave the room.  Then, she thanked me for it, and said it was good. She said that she wanted me to write it out in caligraphy,

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

City of Weird author: Karen Munro


When I put out the call for submissions for City of Weird, there were a few authors I gave nudges to in hopes that they'd submit. Karen Munro is one of them.

I first read her work when we were both contributors to a lovely anthology called the Pacific Northwest Reader, edited by Carl Lennertz and published by Delphinium. Karen's was hands down my favorite essay in the book, and I've followed her work with delight ever since, including great otherworldly stories like "The Cure," published on Midnight Breakfast and told from the point of view of a reluctant werewolf:

I should have known something was wrong when I woke up naked on the kitchen floor next to a half-empty bag of puppy chow, full as a tick.

Karen is particularly good at working the confluence of two emotions, as she does with loneliness and humor in "The Cure."

I went back to Heather. I know. I wasn’t her husband anymore. And she wasn’t my wife. She owed me less than nothing. But the junkyard where I chowed on the dog was in her neighborhood, and I was sure that wasn’t a coincidence. When I changed, something drew me there. Sooner or later I was going to wake up at her doorstep, and after that—maybe I’d wake up in her apartment. Full, bloody-mouthed. I wouldn’t be the first guy who went after friends and family when he turned into a wolf. And it wouldn’t be the first time I’d caused her pain.

Karen deftly navigates the intersection between need and horror in "Pringreen," published on Split Lip Magazine:

That’s Pringreen. There—that mantis of a man propped on the corner with his hand in his pocket, fondling something. A dent in the top of his stovepipe hat as if someone put it there with a single outraged blow. The tails of his coat dusty and soiled. I think he’s looking at you. If he is, if he comes this way, I’ll go.

But perhaps he’s just considering the bakery sign behind us, or that scruffy fellow on the curb. Perhaps I’ve misjudged the angle of his gaze. You seem a regular, a decent sort of man. Not one of Pringreen’s. But it’s so hard to tell what secrets a man has heaped up inside.


So, yes, I nudged Karen about submitting a story for City of Weird. I was so impressed with her imagination, which is both beautifully fanciful and incredibly brainy. I knew she was the perfect candidate for this collection, and when I finally made my decisions about the story submissions I'd received and had my publisher take the blinders off and could see who had written the stories I'd chosen, there she was.

Karen's story "The Color off the Shelf" deals with many fascinating, intersecting themes and topics: the power of books, race and the whiteness of Portland, the allure of the impulses that scare us. Malcolm, a young black college student working on a dissertation about the African American tradition of toasts and boasts, is drawn to a section of Powell's City of Books that he never knew existed, a dank basement labeled as "Deep Storage." Down there, he discovers an old, deeply racist book.

The grown up Negro partakes, as regards his intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child, the female, and the senile White . . .

The passages that Karen included in her tale are so offensive they seem unreal, yet she took them almost word for word from actual existing books that made up a genre known as "scientific racism," a pseudoscientific study of techniques and hypotheses meant to support or justify belief in racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority.

I got together with Karen one day to chat and eat cake, and she surprised me by telling me that the impetus for her story was the fact that H. P. Lovecraft, the man commonly known as the godfather of "weird fiction," the genre celebrated in City of Weird, was a notorious racist. Like really, really racist. And it's in his  stories. It was a fact that I hadn't known. I loved finding out that "The Color Off the Shelf" was a direct reaction to that. Karen drew on the old African American tradition of toasts and boasts, a form of narrative poetry: another thing I hadn't known about before Karen gifted me with her story. As Malcolm enters the mysterious "Deep Storage" he recites one of the most famous toasts to calm his nerves.


Looking for any imagery I might find surrounding toasts and boasts, I came across the above album cover for a recorded version of a book called Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition. More info on the book is here and the CD here. I don't know where the image is from, but it depicts a scene from the very toast that Malcolm turns to...

“Shine was downstairs eating his peas,” he began. His favorite toast, the ballad of “Shine and the Titanic.” The wily, smart black man escaping the white man’s shipwreck. The walls of the staircase seemed to be getting narrower, and he needed to concentrate on something. At first his arms had been almost fully extended—now they were bent at the elbow like chicken wings. A sour smell curled up the stairs to meet him. 

“When the goddamned water come up to his knees.” The staircase had an angle to it, he was sure. A kind of disorienting cant, as if a giant finger had flicked it from one side. 

“The captain said, ‘Shine, set your black self down.’” He paused and looked back. Behind him, the stairs soared like a sheer wall. Inconceivably distant and far above was the little wooden door he’d come through. He swallowed. “‘I got ninety-nine pumps to pump the water down.’”

The book that Malcolm finds at the bottom of the nightmarish staircase grabs onto Malcolm and won't let go - or is it Malcolm who won't let go? "The Color Off the Shelf" is about the ways in which we can be drawn to the things that terrorize us - but it also mirrors the way we as readers, film-watchers, art-lovers can let our appreciation for art cloud our judgment. We don't want to admit to the racism of people like Lovecraft because we so enjoy the other things those imaginations have churned out. Is it OK to love the art if the artist is so deeply flawed, if the deep flaws carry through to the art we love?

What I love is that the power of books works both ways. We can't change the fact that such an important figure in horror fiction's canon (and many more figures beyond that) held such offensive beliefs and embedded his art with it. But an artist like Karen can come along and turn that dark magic into something beautiful.

Karen will be reading from her story at the last official City of Weird launch reading, Monday, April 17th at VFW Post 134 in Portland, where one of the stories takes place. More info on it is here.

An interesting article about Lovecraft's racism is up on Salon here.

A little more info on toasts and boasts, with a rendition of "Shine and the Titanic," as well as the toast "The Signifying Monkey," a children's tale about a lion and a monkey, is here.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Book cover design: Alex Behr's Planet Grim


Recently I had the honor of designing a book cover for Alex Behr's upcoming collection of short stories, Planet Grim. Alex's writing is beautifully particular, darkly funny, and deeply moving. I fell in love with her work when I first heard it at a fabulous Portland arts salon called JAM. Hers is the kind of writing that makes you fall in love with the mind that penned the words. Sharp, edgy, quirky, and profoundly real. I thought her publisher's description of the book described it beautifully:

In twenty-eight stories that will draw blood while making you laugh, Alex Behr’s debut collection Planet Grim is a vivid, unsettling portrait of the gritty fringes of San Francisco and Portland, where complicated characters long for connection just out of reach. Behr is an idiosyncratic, unpredictable prose stylist who will remind readers of Miranda July and Mary Gaitskill, and her edge and willingness to cut to the bone make her writing truly original.

"Planet Grim," Alex quipped the other day. "I named it before the election."

The title was actually the source of a lot of mulling for me as I was brainstorming ideas for a cover design. Both words, planet and grim, are quite loaded. Planet, in particular, had me wondering whether it would be good to actually play on imagery of the earth - after all, there's a sense that the phrase "planet grim" refers to both the particular world of Alex's characters and the wider world of all of our lives.

I did play around with some earth-related ideas, even going so far as to, on impulse one day, build myself one of those schoolchild models of the solar system out of dowel rods and Styrofoam balls, for a sample. Never let it be said that I don't like to get down and dirty with my book design.

But I also played with concepts that, rather than focusing wide and cosmic, pulled in close and personal. Which Alex's collection does so well, zeroing in on what makes us human. One very rough sample I offered during the concepting phase used Alex's own beautifully evocative picture of her son in a superhero cape.

In the end, Alex and her publisher Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books (whose press name I have repeatedly embarrassingly screwed up as 7.15 and 3.17 and π [OK, not π] over and over in my back cover and spine samples) decided upon the sample that they felt got to the moodiness of the collection the best.

Recognize the person in the picture? Here's the original.

That's Alex herself (photo by Lewis Watts) which I did some color and texture work to, then slanted a bit and, obviously, blew up really huge.

For the original rough sample, I created the text in Adobe Illustrator, but Alex wanted something whose execution looked more actually hand-rendered. So that's what I did. I got out my paints and brushes and recreated the lettering on an acetate overlay. Here's a very bad picture of that acetate piece, which I only include here because look at the cool shadow it made on the wall when I  took the picture!


In the end, I liked the texture and painterly-ness of the hand-rendered lettering but the smooth edges of the vector art, so I photoshopped the two versions together. It was a fun process which gave us, finally, a finished piece that we all liked. I hope it's a cover worthy of the beauty and uniqueness to be found on the inside of the book.

Here's a taste from the story "White Pants."

I held up the white pants in front of me, judging that they’d fit. They had rhinestones down the sides. I ducked into a bookstore to put them on. It was next to the café where the Mission’s Red Man sat all day, his face covered with a thin sheen of red face paint.

I put on the pants, forcing up the zipper, and followed a girl who also wore white pants. I followed people for sport, not loneliness. She had bleached white hair, like Debbie Harry, and wore high heels with a white blouse and white pants. All that white blinded me. I felt like I’d met my twin, only someone with more sex trapped in fabric and leather shoes. I crossed in front of blatting scooters and cars, not pausing, knowing the vehicles measured their speed based on mine, and I was matching hers.

I followed her as far as a tamales cart and I let her go. She was looking back at me, and I had nothing to say.


Planet Grim will be out October 12, 2017.

More information about 7.13 Books is here.
More information about Alex Behr is here.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

City of Weird author profile: Art Edwards


Art Edwards was one of the early submissions I got when I was reading for City of Weird. I had him in my maybe pile for a long time because I truly didn't think it would be possible to publish his story. I really, really wanted to publish his story. It was different from what I'd been expecting from my submissions - it didn't contain a classic monster or ghost or spaceman, not even one whose trope had been used in an unexpected way. Instead, it had Alex Trebek mysteriously appearing, one day, standing stoically, nearly catatonically, outside a guy's apartment. That's pretty much all he does - stand there - or, rather, crouch there, waiting for something, and though people start tossing trash at him, having rowdy parties around him, decorating him, he just crouches and waits. When the narrator steps in to keep him company and clean up the messes people make on and around him, magical things begin to happen.

It was definitely one of the weirdest stories in the slew of tales that came across my submissions pile, and even if for that alone, I wanted it.

But you can't publish a story about Alex Trebek without getting permission from Alex Trebek. And, as should be obvious from the description above, Mr. Trebek isn't treated all that well in the course of the story.

Publisher Laura Stanfill wrote to the producers of Jeopardy!, and we let Art know that we loved the story but that its acceptance hinged upon getting permission, and I think all three of us pretty much wrote it off as never-going-to-happen.

On June 12th (two days before my birthday... coincidence?) we got an email back from the Jeopardy! representative. Alex Trebek had received the request. Alex Trebek had read the story (!). And, yes, he was giving his permission to us to use his... what would you call the non-visual version of a likeness?... in the book.

Laura forwarded the email to me along with one simple sentence, all in caps: OH MY GOODNESS!

The best part of the message was the fact that Alex had given us an edit. There was one sentence, likely a simple typo that I hadn't even yet noticed, that he wondered about.

"One note/question Alex had was in the fourth paragraph, the sentence “A breeze rustled craggily maples at the complex’s entrance.”, did not make sense to him, so he wanted to point that out."

Right you are! Craggily - - > Craggy. Done.

Of course, once the story had been accepted formally, it went through a regular course of edits from me and copy edits from our copy editors, but we were all kind of tickled that Alex had given us an edit, himself. I joked that I could see a cover with "Edited by Gigi Little" on it, and in tiny type underneath "(And Alex Trebek)."



When we told Art, he said, "Alex Trebek. What a hoot! I write these things thinking no one will read them, and then Alex Trebek reads one. Someone in my writing group said I should use 'edited by Alex Trebek' as a blurb."

When City of Weird came out more than a year later, Booklist called "Waiting for the Question" "a gritty urban fantasia." One of the things I particularly like about the story is its sly, understated humor, as in this segment. To set this up, the narrator's kind of a slacker...

I called my brother Rex in Beaverton, who’d worked the same job for fifteen years. 

“I need $1,100.” 

I felt the pause on his end, cutting me with every second. 

“You need $1,100.” 

“They’re going to evict me.” 

“Where’s Grandma’s money?” 

I couldn’t answer. He sighed. 

“I can’t find a job.” 

“There’s a guy in Hillsboro hiring people to do phone surveys.” 

“That’s not my field.” 

“Your field?” 

“Yes, I have a degree.” 

“What I’m getting at,” Rex said, “is where was the urgency a few weeks ago when you could’ve done something about it besides call me?” 

I had no answer for him, so I said, “You know, Alex Trebek is camped out at my apartment complex.”

"Waiting for the Question" was a long time coming. It began its life all the way back in 2011 with a different title and a different ending. In fact, it was a different tale altogether. Art tells the story of this story in a very interesting article he wrote for Necessary Fiction, called "Waiting for the Answer." You can check it out here.

Art will be reading from his story at Another Read Through, a fabulous indy bookstore, on March 11th. It's a Saturday, so this event begins at 1:30. Facebook event page is here.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake


Heading out into the lobby of the Keller Auditorium at first intermission of Swan Lake last night, Stephen said, "The corps de ballet is very... together, very..."

Looking for the right word and I anticipated it and jumped in with that tiny pride you have every time you one-up your partner in linguistic prowess.

"Tight?" I said.

"Yes, tight. That's the thing you often hear in reviews, that the principal dancers are good but the corps de ballet was sloppy. I was very impressed."

"So, corps de ballet...?"

"That means the members of the company who dance together in a group, as opposed to the soloists."

"Can I use that term in my blog post? I'm going to use that term in my blog post!"

So, there's my full disclosure: Linguistic excellence? Balletic knowledge? Not so much. But I love ballet, the skill, the beauty, the strange magic of learning a story almost completely through movement, and I particularly enjoyed Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of Swan Lake. The word I kept using to describe things last night as we were leaving the theater, a word that sprang easily to my tongue, was delightful.



It's an interesting production because it is not the classic Swan Lake based on the 1895 revival with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and it's not the classic Tchaikovsky ballet updated with completely new choreography. Artistic Director Kevin Irving's adaptation is an amalgam including input by Petipa and Ivanov and modern choreographers Nicolo Fonte, Kevin Irving, Anthony Jones, and Lisa Kipp. Not only that, but the storyline has been changed to add a completely new element and that takes the story in a completely different direction and toward a different ending.

I'll only say that about the changes, because I hate spoilers, but what I can say is that I felt all the aspects of OBT's Swan Lake, the old choreography and the new, the classic story elements and the new, were assembled beautifully so that the whole production felt seamless and integrated.

And the orchestra under the direction of Niel DePonte was - I'll use my initial not-very-ballet-chic word again - tight. Beautiful. And the dancing, led last night by Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc, was quite good, with particularly lovely use of the corps de ballet. The white swans swirled and churned like a murmuration across the stage. At times, to me, they seemed to symbolize more than enchanted swans, becoming, here, a hint of storm, there a spread of fog as a night moved toward morning.


One of the most surprising things to me was the humor. The scene of the ball in Act 2 is rife with it, fashioned beautifully through the use of both choreography and storyline. I didn't know I could laugh so much in a ballet. And there was one particular moment I never thought I'd see in a ballet - and of course, that spoiler thing, again: I can't say what that moment was. I wish I could. All I can say is that between that moment and the burst of laughter that followed was a half second of silence in which I think the only sound in the auditorium was the surprised "Oh!" that jumped out of my mouth.

Here are three final words in my parade of words about OBT's world premier production of Swan Lake: go see it. It's a gorgeous and delightful evening and you don't need to know any fancy ballet terms in order to come out of the theater feeling smart and full of a little more joy.

More info and tickets here.

Photos of  Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc and the company members of Oregon Ballet Theatre courtesy of Randall Milstein.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

His Eye is on the Sparrow at Portland Center Stage


I was glad I knew nothing about Ethel Waters before going to see His Eye is on the Sparrow in the
Ellen Bye Theater at Portland Center Stage Friday night. Oh, I knew she was a singer who had popularized wonderful old songs like "Stormy Weather" and "Am I Blue." I knew she played Berenice in The Member of the Wedding. But I knew nothing about her life.

It was wonderful to sit in that intimate theater and watch her story unfold through narration and song. His Eye is on the Sparrow, written by Larry Parr, is essentially a one-woman show (I say essentially because she's accompanied by a piano player), in which Ms.Waters, played by Maiesha McQueen, guides us through her troubled childhood, her sad young life as a grudging teen bride, her surprise rise to stardom accompanied by feelings of inadequacy in the face of the racism and sexism all around her, her seclusion as an older woman followed by her return as a gospel singer - and most of all, her songs.

Fabulous songs. "Heatwave." "Old Man Harlem." "Franky and Johnny." "Black and Blue." Songs beautifully performed by Maiesha McQueen in a voice that ranges from sweet to deep to playful to mournful, and a performance that, above all, rings authentic. One of the biggest pitfalls of a show like this one is inauthenticity, and McQueen's performance is not a modern take and not a pastiche. It's the real deal.



I loved the whole of McQueen's performance. She's funny and heartbreaking and brassy and dynamic and again, again, so authentic. Authentic to the time period(s) and authentic to the human experience.

I have to admit I don't tend to be interested in stars or the lives of stars. Packed houses on concert tours and actors' searches for that perfect movie role aren't stories that move me. But His Eye is on the Sparrow is not a play about stardom. It's a story about human relationships, the struggle to make connection. It's a story about race, and the ways people internalize the unfair inequality around them. It's a story about womanhood.

And OK, yes, I lied: it's a story about stardom. But what that particular thread in the production said to me had little to do with stardom, per se.  Stories about stars are often about persistence. How they struggle to realize their full potential, how they persevere to reach that place in the spotlight. The Ethel Waters I saw last night at Portland Center Stage seemed to have the spotlight handed to her in a gift-wrapped box, and the persistence that marked her life centered around other things. Real things. Most of all, simply the struggle to feel equal in the world.


As I left the theater, a phrase kept playing in my head. She was a star, and she just wanted to be on par.

Silly rhyme notwithstanding, this was the takeaway that stuck with me the most. She had achieved so much - stints on Broadway and the concert stage, appearances in the movies and on TV, record contracts; she was the second African American woman nominated for an Academy Award (Pinky) and the first African American  woman to have a lead role in a television series (Beulah) - and she still felt less than. Less than her fellow man. Less than her fellow White man.

When she persisted, she was called difficult. And perhaps she was. But these were difficult times for Black women. Still are. I can't help it: my mind goes to the recent Senate Judiciary hearings on Jeff Sessions and two women's voices (Elizabeth Warren's and Coretta Scott King's) silenced in their attempt to speak truth about racism. Nevertheless, she persisted. This is what Ethel Waters does throughout her story. She persists. Not toward the kind of achievement that wants to be measured in Academy Awards and television ratings and Twitter followers, but toward authenticity.

Somewhere in the second half, I was compelled to fish a pen out of my purse and scribble on the back of my program a line Waters says. She's describing White people and the line is both biting and sympathetic. "Their souls have been pushed down somehow."

This felt so true and so ironic. With all the efforts, conscious and unconscious, that White America has made to put themselves - ourselves - above, our souls have been pushed down.

But what happens during the play: you feel lifted up. By Ethel Waters' music, her truth, her hilarious barbs, her persistence. And it isn't just her. I said before, His Eye is on the Sparrow is essentially a one-woman show. Maiesha McQueen's partner on stage is Darius Smith. Beyond being musical director of the production, he plays the piano for her performance beautifully, but his presence is more than that. From the way he escorts her through the theater in the opening of each act, to his quiet attentiveness to her performance, Smith seems to be some sort of opposite Greek chorus. Rather than commenting on the action, telling the story for her, he listens. He sits back and actively lets her tell her truth. He attends with grace and respect, and with this, he seems to represent that something that Ethel Waters always deserved.



His Eye is on the Sparrow runs through March 19th. More info is here.

Thank you to Patrick Weishampel for the photos. Theater poster designed by Julia McNamara. The picture of Ethel Waters from Wikipedia Commons.

Monday, February 6, 2017

a moment in the day; or, a short transcript of the introduction to some old radio show i was just listening to while trying to escape from the horrors of reality


Come in!

Welcome.

I'm E. G. Marshall.

"We are all doomed!" said one philosopher.

It is inevitable. It is fate. It is destiny. Our lives hang on a slender thread from one day to another.

We place our daily existence in the hands of total strangers. And pray for the luck of the draw.

We do it when we drive down the highway.

When we fly in an airplane.

We do it when we elect a president.

...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Book cover: Queen of Spades


One of my ideas for a book cover for Michael Shou-Yung Shum's upcoming novel Queen of Spades, centered around a Seattle gambling casino, was to design the book to look like a package of playing cards. The prominent spade on the pack of Bicycle cards, like the one shown here, works beautifully with the book's title, and I had a lot of fun putting together a very precise homage to one of their classic boxes, before I realized we probably had a trademark issue on our hands and there wouldn't be time to contact the Bicycle folks and ask their permission.

Sure glad I took the time to get the whole thing completely designed before that occurred to me...

Luckily, it wasn't my only idea, so I refocused my efforts on what was, actually, my first concept which was to create a designed card back in the tradition of these.





Aren't they great? Think how fun it would be to be an artist whose sole job was to make these.

It was a lot of fun gathering samples and studying all those lovely designs. And I think one of my favorite things about graphic design is attempting to create something as an homage to something else. In a way, what I like most is not creating but recreating. That's why some of my favorite jobs have been ones like City of Weird (old weird fiction magazine covers), Jamie Yourdon's Froelich's Ladder (old books), and Stevan Allred's A Simplified Map of the Real World (maps). And one of my favorite projects ever, actually, a CD cover I did for a very indy collection of music played on a Wurlitzer theater organ, because I got to design it to look like a 1930s movie poster.

The big challenge with Queen of Spades was finding the best way to fit all the elements of a book cover into the layout: title, author name, blurb and the words "a novel." It's a lot to squeeze into a design that already takes up a lot of space on the page. I didn't want to obscure too much of the classic card elements, the background pattern, the ornate border, the [usually double, right-side-up-and-upside-down] centerpiece.

I was particularly happy with how I worked in the blurb.



The card went through a number of iterations. The poker chips in the corners of the border were sometimes chips, sometimes simple card suits (heart, club, diamond, spade), the filigree morphed as I needed it to for spacing. The lettering of the title kept getting more and more ornate, thanks to publisher Laura Stanfill's prompting.

One of the things I experimented with was doing Michael's name upside down. After all, card designs are usually done that way. While it was a fun approach, Laura and I felt it was up to the author to decide whether his name would be presented in a way that would also, of course, make it less immediately readable.

Michael chose right-side up. It makes his name more readable but it also fits the space better. And he's the one to thank for the deep blue background color. Originally I'd been playing with the gold shown just above, and I experimented with a number of other colors, but Michael's suggested blue makes the red and white card pop in a lovely way.

I love that collaborative part of the process, and I'll gamble that what the three of us came up with together has made this book cover a lovelier thing.

Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost had this to say about Queen of Spades.

“A magical debut—literally. This tale is both spare and sprawling, gritty and otherworldly, both an homage to the complex psychology of gambling and a cautionary tale for those watching from the rail. A ridiculously satisfying read.”

Here's a taste from the book:

Chan wandered to the employee lounge, where two fellow pit dealers pulled a chair for him to join them. Leanne and Bao were friendly and gregarious, and after fifteen minutes of chatting about their respective dealing pasts, Chan asked them about the old woman he had seen leaving the casino. They were only too happy to respond. He learned that no one knew her real name, and that she was referred to by all the regulars and the staff as the Countess.

Every evening, Leanne said, she could be found playing Faro in the High Limit Salon. She arrived at ten p.m. in a long, silver Rolls Royce limousine, and would gamble for three hours—no, it was four, said Bao. Until two a.m. precisely. All the while, her chauffeur, a young man who never spoke a word, stood stiffly by her side.

“She’s sort of the queen of the Royal,” Bao explained.


Queen of Spades comes out in October of this year. More info is here.