Saturday, May 25, 2019

a moment in the day: cape

I'm driving to work on the late side, eightish rather than sevenish. The sweet thing about leaving late is that all up and down Stark Street children and parents are walking to school together, and kids stand sentinel with their flags at the crosswalks.

Out through my passenger side, a mom brings up the rear in a line of three. In front, running ahead in a burst of kid energy, is Superman. Red and yellow S insignia on his blue shirt, and red cape flying.

Behind him, probably not old enough for school, is a makeshift Batman with a purple mask that looks homemade, maybe out of paper, and a cape that’s a color somewhere between red and pink. Fuschia. She runs to catch up.

I drive past, using my secret Mxyzptlk fifth dimensional powers to draw just a little of their joy into me for my day at work.

Halfway down the sidewalk: she’s in a cape, too. But it isn’t a cape. It’s a ratty, old gray towel, tied around her neck and hanging down. The woman looks homeless. She doesn't have a bag or a shopping cart. All she seems to have is the cape on her back.

She's bent over, and I'm coming up behind her, so in my glance through the windshield I don't see the look on her face and wonder if she's doubled over in pain or sadness.

But as I pass, I take one more glance. In her hands is a bouquet. Fat, lovely flowers in Superman reds and fuschia pinks. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

a moment in the day: tea

I’m walking back from the break room at work, cup of freshly-reheated green tea in one hand, the little paper tag on the end of the tea bag fluttering. 

Now the air takes the paper tag and lifts it, flips it so that it lands on my hand in that place between my thumb and first finger. 

The tag, landing, feels, for a half second, like when my Chihuahua Nicholas is sitting on my lap at home, me at the computer, and he decides to rest his chin on my hand while I’m trying to type. 

Walking with my tea, I get the tiniest little happy that travels from my hand, up my arm, to my heart. 

It’s such an ordinary moment, the tea bag tag fluttering up and landing on my hand. And it happens all the time. 

And every time. Every time. I feel Nicholas’ chin.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Book Cover: This Particular Happiness

You know when you finish designing a book cover and the author loves it and the publisher loves it and people say lovely things and you're feeling so happy?

Well, this particular happiness doesn't always make it to production, and sometimes, even long after advance readers have been printed and images have gone up on websites and the book has started to gain an identity alongside the design, you find yourself back at ye olde drawing board.

Forest Avenue Press' upcoming book This Particular Happiness is a memoir about writer Jackie Shannon Hollis' experience navigating the decision not to have children. Our original cover was designed to reflect the beauty of Jackie's writing and the complexity of the decision she made—the love, the sacrifice, the loss. These are all things that make the book wonderfully compelling, but there are many ways to market a book, and for promotional purposes, our distributor, Publishers Group West, was interested in focusing on another aspect of her story: empowerment.

And for that, we knew we would need a cover with an entirely different tone.

It was late in the game when we decided to reimagine the design. Panic! How could I possibly totally reconceptualize and redesign at this late date—especially when coming up with the original took soooo long (It really did. I wrote about it here.)?

But then a bit of inspiration hit me, and in the course of two weekends, I had a completely finished idea.

The subtitle to Jackie's book is "a childless love story." In my brainstorming, I started thinking about how the book is a story of a partnership, not just one person's experience. I pictured a vista, lots of sky, sunrise or sunset colors, and in the foreground, two clasped hands (representing Jackie and her husband Bill) with the subtitle "a childless love story" written in a swoop right across their arms. Putting both childless and love story right there on their connected bodies, and letting that subtitle cradle the sky and the words of the title: This Particular Happiness. The lettering would be hand-done. The kind of lettering that is dynamic, alive.

I liked this. I started to make this.

Of course, nothing is as easy as you picture it in your head. And that's one of the things about me. As much as I'm obsessed with working with visual arts, I don't have a good visual mind. I don't see things. When I picture something, it's generally in the form of a concept, and I don't know what it will look like until I make it and can actually see it.

I couldn't make the thing with the arms work. It was the crux of my idea, and I couldn't make it work.

Arms were, it turned out, way thinner than they should be, at least for adequately writing on.

I wanted the arms/clasped hands to be a silhouette so that the words stood out, but then they just looked like a shape. A stretched out blob. I added a sleeve to make it more obvious. Some bracelets. Was Jackie a bracelet-wearing type of person? The words looked crowded.

I zoomed in a bit to give the lettering some room.

Now it looked even more like a blob.

I tried moving the lettering out from inside the clasped hands/arms and letting it lie in a swoop above. The hands were now an empty elongated blob.

I zoomed way out.

It was more obvious that these were two people holding hands, but by now I'd started to wonder whether the clasped hands were necessary at all.

For me, a lot of design work (mine, I mean) isn't so much creativity as discovery. I think about different types of artists: the painter, the sculptor, the print maker... There's also what's called a "found object" artist. Someone who finds objects and turns them into art. Discovering the art piece as they go. Sometimes I think of myself as a "found object" designer. Like in the sample above: taking the swoop of a childless love story and breaking it apart and on impulse layering the two halves sort of equally off balance—suddenly there was an element I hadn't had before. That off-kilter a childless love story felt like a discovery. And it felt so right that I realized the clasped hands below it were just in the way.

A couple of weekends of tinkering and discovering, pairing things down, and then a bit of follow-up time, consulting with publisher Laura Stanfill and writer Jackie Shannon Hollis on little things like the placement of the blurb, and we had our cover.

Interestingly, to me this new cover feels kind of effortless whereas the earlier cover felt... beautiful but full of effort, somehow. As if, looking at the design, you can see all the work it took to fashion that flower from words, how difficult it was to create matching petals out of words of such different sizes. Aunt. Counselor. Friend.

I learn something every time I design a book cover. (I probably learn some of the same things over and over, but that's my brain.) What I learned with This Particular Happiness is to remember you don't always have to be super literal. All those words, those bits of information I was squeezing into that flower. And the time I labored to get those clasped hands right. Sometimes, what you need is simply the right tone, the right mood. The right feel.

When I look at the early attempts at this current cover design, with the subtitle written across the arms (the only thing that came from my first bit of inspiration) I see a heaviness in the bottom half. The top half feels light, alive. Once I got out of my own way and let the piece feel right, I knew I'd done my job.

This Particular Happiness launches this fall. More info is here.

Here's a tiny taste:

She was in the kitchen and I burst out my news. Her eyes went big. She moved in toward me, already shaking her head. “Oh no,” she said. Her voice was fierce. “That’s not ladylike. Girls are supposed to let the boys win. Make them feel strong. Otherwise they won’t like you.” 

I’d always felt close to her when she taught us things about being a lady, how to sit with our ankles crossed and our hands folded in our laps, how to say please and thank you and always offer to help with the dishes when we were guests, how to squat, not bend, when wearing a dress. But this didn’t make any sense. To pretend would be a lie. Wasn’t being strong part of being a lady too?

The Breath of Life at Portland Center Stage

On Friday night, Stephen and I saw one of two previews for Portland Center Stage's production of The Breath of Life. The play, by David Hare, imagines two women who spend 24 hours together in a house on the Isle of Wight. The kicker is that they are the wife and mistress of one man, who has now left both for a younger woman.

The cast of two is Julia Brothers as Frances Beale, the wife, and Portland favorite Gretchen Corbett as Madeleine Palmer, the mistress—both really great actresses who deliver heart and humor in equal doses. There's an odd steadiness to Hare's play—plenty of tension throughout but it doesn't seem to rise and fall. But the dialogue snaps and the humor is wicked and witty. We laughed a lot.

Friday night was also a really interesting example of the old adage the show must go on. Just before the date of the play's original preview (only one week back), the actress originally set to play Frances had to drop out. I can't imagine what a crazy scramble it must have been to recast such an essential part at the very last minute.

It was so last minute that Brothers, the new Frances, had a script on stage with her during the show. Sometimes she just held it, sometimes she referred to it as she delivered her lines. You'd think this would be a distraction. Well, it was, but not an annoying distraction. On the contrary, it was fascinating. It felt like a privilege to get this behind-the-scenes-in-front-of-the-scenes glimpse of theater.

I wondered: how much did she really need that script? When she referred to it, was it mostly a bit of a safety net, or was she really in the process of still memorizing her lines? If she didn't have it, how much would she be able to recite? After the Friday night show (which was a preview night, for the press and maybe donors, etc.), would she be casting the script aside and performing the Saturday preview (her last before the regular run began) without a net?

It was hard to tell, because she was so darn good. She delivered her lines beautifully, moved across the stage, used plenty of body language, all of it seeming very, very real, while holding that script in her hand. At times she had to navigate props with it. Transfer the booklet to this hand while this other hand reached and poured the cup of tea. Little things like that kind of fascinated me. One object was inside the play, one object was not. It was like watching someone half in one dimension and half in another.

(Pictures sans script, of course.)

I kept thinking, how does an actor so fully inhabit a role, so beautifully become someone else in some made-up situation, how does she make that real while holding the script, the evidence of the fiction, in her hand? How does she keep from having that distract her from being completely immersed in the scene? And how does she come out on stage after a last minute change like this, not yet even having her lines completely committed to memory, and fit into the production so well?

My hat's off to Julia Brothers, and to Gretchen Corbett who had to switch gears to work with the timing, the delivery, the physical presence of a completely new costar. And to Portland Center Stage for deftly rolling with the punches and delivering yet another aspect of theater magic—the quick change—with finesse and expertise.

Loved the set. It was beautifully elaborate in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio.

The Breath of Life runs now through June 16. More info is here.

Photos by Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Poster art by Mikey Mann.

Sunday, May 12, 2019


When I was a kid, I had a baby doll. Her name was Lucy Barker.

She was named after my mom's first and middle names (from before Mom married Dad and got a maiden name to replace the middle).

I also had a second baby doll. She was smaller and had a beanbag body and a plastic head.

Her name was Little Lucy Barker.

I wish I could claim to have named both. As a kid, I remember I was proud to have two dolls named after my mother, who was, as you must know, the Very Best Human in the World.

It was my dad who suggested those names. He was also the biggest pet namer in the family. When we got two kittens he named them too:

Two-Lu and Tre-Lu.

I swear he didn't always name everything after my mom, but like with the dolls, I loved that the kitties were named after her. The way Dad named things, it felt like the perfect expression of love: simple and funny and joyful.

I never did have any kids to name anything, but I'd like to think if I were mulling names, my dad would say, hey, I've got a suggestion.

We kids, as young adults, used to laugh about how we often called my parents' home "Mom's house." Sometimes mothers get all the accolades. In 2001 I stayed there for Christmas, and I learned that my two-year-old then-nephew Maxx (now Amy) called it, "Lulu's house."

I said, "Maxx, where does Pops live?"

Expecting the answer to be Lulu's house.

"In the office."

Thursday, May 9, 2019

a moment in the day: o'donnell, stephen o'donnell

We're in the car, running errands after a wonderful lit event at the college, and our heads are full of appreciation for art and literature, and we're talking about... James Bond.

"Have I ever seen a James Bond movie?" I ask, though I know he doesn't know the answer. "Have you?"

He tells me about one time when he was a kid and his dad took him to see... oh, which one? (he looks up at the roof of the car, thinking)... oh, it was You Only Die Twice. He tries to sing me the theme song.

"I think maybe I did see a James Bond movie!" I say. "It was the one... Who was in it? Wait, maybe it was a Batman movie. They're always getting new Batmen like they're always getting new James Bonds. Yeah. I think it was a Batman movie."

"James Bond isn't my kind of thing," Stephen says. "And the men were never sexy. Although they were supposed to be."

I wonder if the same is true for Batmen.

"And the women," he says. "They're supposed to be sexy; that's really all they're supposed to be in those movies. I never found that kind of woman sexy."

"What kind of woman?" I ask.

"The sexy kind."