Monday, September 30, 2019

Acceptable Alternatives for the Word Little for Use in Childish Bullying and Other Late-night Tweets

Widdle (best used in conjunction with the word Baby)
The Opposite of Bigly
Pansy-ass (includes the added benefit of inferred homophobia) (also includes the added benefit of the word ass)
Pissant (includes the added benefit of the word piss)

Book Cover: Outlier Heart

Recently, I was approached by writer Joe Bardin about designing a book cover for his upcoming essay collection Outlier Heart, a memoir of, as the subtitle states, his "life as an immortalist."

I didn't know what an immortalist was. He talked about being on a journey of transhumanism—another word I was unfamiliar with—which translates to, according to some googling, "the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology." Here's a snippet of quote from an article I found in The Guardian: “It is their belief that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of death...” To get more specific about author Joe Bardin's take, here's a passage that Joe sent me, from his book:

In the name of living forever, I did stupid things and I did meaningful things. But at some point, the logic of mortality simply collapsed inside me. The idea that one could live a good and satisfying life within the confines of, let's say, 80 years, while knowing you're heading, with each passing moment, towards your own oblivion, became an absurdity. It wasn't so much a question of whether immortality was possible as whether mortality was tenable. And it was not.

He had a very specific idea in mind for the cover of the book, and he sent me these two images: a tree of life and a classic heart-with-banner tattoo.

He said this about what he'd like for the design:

"...what I have in mind is a tattoo-like image consisting of a circular style Tree of Life with a heart somehow in the center, with a banner on it reading Outlier Heart."

I thought he had a cool vision. Of course, you have to get things on the page to find out just how it all will work. Sometimes things don't fit like you need them to. Putting the title of the book on the banner made the title too small for its britches, so I experimented with putting the title above and the subtitle, a very important part of this particular book cover, on that banner. The fonts I used were just stand-ins so I could show Joe and his publisher the layout. The colors, too, were just what I chose at random to start, but I liked the red against the smoky light green.

He liked the direction but started to feel like a circular tree of life was too busy. He said, what if it was more of a straight tree design with the tree growing up out of the heart rather than the heart being in the center. So I started over and made a new tree. Now the length of the banner was a problem, so I gave it a double drape across the heart and cut the subtitle into two pieces. I started working with lettering that was reminiscent of classic tattoos.

Joe and his publisher liked the new heart and tree and the lettering. Incidentally they also liked the color scheme. And they gave me a blurb to add. But now Joe was thinking the banner made the design more whimsical than his book called for. He asked if I could remove it and find a new spot for the subtitle.

I've said before that a lot of putting together a book cover is problem-solving. Sometimes I think that's my favorite part of cover design, trying to make it all work together. Where is the best place to put the subtitle if it can't go on the banner? Does it go directly on the heart? Is there room to put it below the title? Joe asked if I could make the tree's roots come down over the heart, and I thought that might be cool because it may look reminiscent of the veins that run across an actual heart. I repositioned and reduced the tree to give room for the subtitle to go directly below the title.

Once we had a layout we all liked, I took the design, which I'd made in Illustrator, into Paint Shop Pro for shading. Originally Joe had said he liked the idea of the tree being all brown, but now that it was becoming a more realistic tree, with tattoo-like shading, going all brown looked too dead, which was exactly the opposite of what felt appropriate for the subject matter. So the leaves became green and I washed some green into the trunk and branches. Joe had asked if I could try washing some blue into the roots. I liked that idea because, again, it had a vein-like quality—just enough to be reminiscent of a physical heart without being too real.

I experimented with whether to use black outlines like classic tattoos or go outline-less like more modern tattoos, and I tried adding some texture. Joe asked if I could make it look like it was a tattoo on actual skin. That ended up looking strange and a little discomfiting, so we went with a bit of overall grain instead, which gave the design a bit of edginess that felt right.

Outlier Heart is just out.

The paperback is available here.

The eBook version is available here.

Here's a quick excerpt:

Impossibly fervent, intolerably vulnerable, I made my growing up an exercise of mind over body, reason over feeling. I thought everyone did this and assumed adulthood would generate its own sense of connection and substantiation to replace what I'd sacrificed. But the more I hid my haunting, the more ethereal I became, until I almost wasn't present at all. So I started living by my outlier heart, and I'm seeing where it takes me.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Book Cover: Edie on the Green Screen

I was recently engaged by one of my favorite publishers, 7.13 Books, to design a book cover for their upcoming novel Edie On the Green Screen.

The book is the first novel of bestselling writer Beth Lisick (Everybody Into the Pool). Here's the publisher's book description:

Edie Wunderlich was a twenty-eight year-old It Girl in late ‘90s San Francisco, on the cover of the city’s alt-weekly, repping the freak party scene on the eve of the first dotcom boom. Fast-forward twenty years, and Edie hasn’t changed, but the city has. Still a bartender in the Mission, Edie now serves a seemingly never-ending stream of tech bros while the punk rock parties of the millennium’s end are long gone. When her mother dies, leaving Edie her Silicon Valley home, Edie finds herself mourning in the center of the Bay Area’s tech monoculture, and embarks on perhaps a last-ditch quest to hold on to her rebel heart.

How cool does that sound! Well, when publisher Leland Cheuk began to talk to me about book cover design, he said Beth had some ideas he liked: 

As far as covers, I'd like something bold and graphic. I think that chroma key green of the green screen would be a cool element, and it might be nice to see a female figure in shadow/all black in front of it, and then be able to see it's a backdrop and the green screen is in front of a wall or something.

I liked these ideas a lot. Leland said Beth would also like the cover to reflect the setting of San Francisco, and for that he suggested the Golden Gate Bridge as a landmark. Actually, he said "the GG Bridge," and me with my name, I made a joke about a Gigi Bridge and... Well, anyway I started there, spending a Saturday morning building the Golden Gate Bridge from vectors and pixels.

Beth suggested a woman walking toward the camera, so I built a woman, next, and started positioning her on the page in front of a green screen, tossing the beginnings of words down where it seemed they'd fit. Yeah, my early sketches are never impressive...

A green screen, in case you don't know, is a screen like the ones used in news shows where a meteorologist can stand in a studio and talk about the weather and it looks like they're standing in front of a huge map of the country with high pressure symbols bearing down on Minnesota. A green screen can take you anywhere. Sometimes those screens are blue, but most often nowadays they're green—a specific green called chroma key green, in fact. (I didn't know this until Beth mentioned the name.) I looked up that color and found out it's equal to 354C in the Pantone color matching system or 81, 0, 92, 0 on the CMYK color scale, and I used those values to get the color green for my green screen.

I liked the idea of showing, on the cover, the illusion a green screen can create, with the central figure of Edie creating the line between fantasy and reality, between the real green screen and the fantasy of San Francisco that I was creating with my Golden Gate Bridge. It made me think of the disconnect between Edie's present life and the life she used to have.

So I built my bridge, my woman, and my green screen, and I moved them around on the page. I created some flood lights to go along with my television studio setup, but the layout was getting crowded. Along with the green screen and the woman and the Golden Gate Bridge, I needed to fit the title, the author name, and a blurb.

I realized most of the title would fit really nicely on the woman, and a design began to emerge.

No, not that one. But it was a start.

The energy of the book seemed to lend itself to a hand-lettered approach, but I started to realize I wanted it to be all lowercase, a type treatment with a bit of cursive in it. And set at a slant to get some movement and energy into things. I love hand-lettering on book covers because the lettering itself seems to belong to the book and to the author.

As I was sending samples back and forth and discussing tweaks with Leland and Beth, Beth's husband pointed out that because she had an image of the Golden Gate Bridge on another of her books, it might be smart to find something new. They suggested Sutro Tower, which is this.

As it turned out, nixing the bridge in favor of the tower allowed for a bit of breath that we felt was needed in the design, and we finally had our cover.

Edie on the Green Screen, by Beth Lisick and published by 7.13 Books, will be out in spring of 2020.

More info is here.

Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite!

Tanya put some powder on me, to suck the shininess out, before I stepped out on the floor in front of the green screen and tried to be loose. If only I’d brought my flask.

“What did you win?” the photographer asked. “I should probably know this, but we’re doing so many today.”

I paused for a second to consider the possibilities of an intelligent answer, but there wasn’t one. “I,” I pressed my palms into my eyeballs, “am the It Pal.”

“It Pal?”

“I know. They told me they had voted me It Girl, but then that was probably sexist which, okay, and if they had an It Girl, they’d have to have an It Boy, and there was something about it being gendered and they couldn’t agree on who to vote for and it all sounds so dumb. Like high school, right? The weekly news- paper is anointing the citizens of our city with stupid titles and no one is taking to the streets about it. Where is the outrage?” I shook my fist in the air and added a dopey smile. I wanted her to like me.

An editor at the paper popped out from the sidelines to defend her publication, a once-independently owned enterprise that was now run by a national conglomerate, fighting against their failure to be what they wanted to be above all else: “edgy” and “local.” The editor extended her hand, making things feel way more formal than they needed to.

“Our idea for the It Issue was to come up with categories that we’ve never had before and make it fresh,” she said, running her hand through her shoulder-length waves. “That’s why we have things like the It Pornographer, the It Tagger, and the It Vegan.” The pleasure she took in saying these phrases made me squirm. She was trying so hard. Give her five years and she’d be living in Mill Valley, popping out kids, and feeling competitive about her workout.

“I think that’s the thing,” the photographer said, ignoring her, which pleased me immensely. “What you’re doing right now. Keep not smiling if you want.” She pointed the camera at me while I tried to look through her, or through the camera and then through her, through the brick wall of the studio and out onto the alley where there were people in wheelchairs with their heads taped up. An alley of hacking coughs and oozing gauze and cheap coffee and forties and a lot of freebase. South of Market was like triage at an outdoor hospital.

As the shutter clicked repeatedly, I realized I was having a “peak experience,” a phrase I once heard a Jewish shaman named Vicki use referring to what could only be the beginning of one’s decline. There I was, summoned to a photographer’s warehouse on a wintry day to get my picture taken with the rest of the winners. It’s clear to me now that I was going down.

In The Heights at Portland Center Stage

In the Heights, the award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, is three days in the life of a mostly Hispanic-American neighborhood in Washington Heights, New York. Usnavi de la Vega, whose first name comes from the first sight his parents spied when they arrived in America from the Dominican Republic (a ship with a sign reading US Navy), owns a bodega in the center of the barrio but dreams of getting out and returning to the land his people came from. Also living and working here are Kevin Rosario, the ambitious owner of a taxicab business; Benny, his dispatcher and the one non-Spanish-speaker around; and Abuela Claudia, the loving matriarch of the barrio. Kevin's daughter Nina, the one often praised for being the first to "make it out," has just returned from Stanford University, not quite ready to tell her parents and friends that she has dropped out.

There's also Vanessa, the salon worker who dreams of having her own apartment outside the barrio but can't afford the down-payment, and the Piragua Guy, who sells Puerto Rican shaved ice in fierce competition with Mister Softee. There are relationship problems and thwarted ambitions and a huge citywide blackout during an intense heat wave, not to mention the winning lottery ticket that has just been sold at Usnavi's store, but through it all, the central theme in In the Heights is home.

What does home mean? Is it something to endure, something to go out and find, something you're given, something you create?

The answer, of course, is yes, but it's much more interesting an answer when it comes with the music and drama and wit of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. We saw Saturday night's performance of the production put on by Portland Center Stage, one of my favorite Portland theaters. I've never seen Hamilton and didn't know what to expect with In the Heights. I'll admit that at first I was afraid it would be difficult to follow for the likes of me. As the music began, the rhymes and the wordplay were coming at me so fast, but by halfway through that first piece, my brain had caught up and I was along for the ride. Here's a little taste:

I am Usnavi, and you prob’ly never heard my name
Reports of my fame are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated 'cause I immigrated
From the single greatest little place in the Caribbean:
Dominican Republic!
I love it!
Jesus, I’m jealous of it
And beyond that
Ever since my folks passed on
I haven’t gone back
Goddamn, I gotta get on that...

I can be kind of a jerk when it comes to modern musicals. Well, at least inside my head. There's a sameness and a preciousness and... just a sound I don't always enjoy. But In the Heights is different. The music is a mix of salsa and rap, feeling like the best of America: the vibrancy of its diversity and the energy of its perseverance. And it's so darn fun. The orchestra for Portland Center Stage's production, led by Eugenio A. Vargas, is tight, and the singing is first rate. And there's plenty of dancing by the whole, large cast. Including breakdancing! So much energy, so nonstop. We had to wonder how pooped the cast was when they finished the show.

See in the above picture? That balcony above the bodega? Not only does some of the action of the performance take place up there, but the whole band—keyboards, reeds, guitar, trumpet, bass, drums—is mounted up there. Like the music is a part of the barrio, which feels perfect.

Some of my favorite parts in the show were delivered by secondary characters. Lillian Castillo was fantastic as Daniela, the feisty salon owner and neighborhood gossip, and I loved whenever she was suddenly, surprisingly belting it out on stage.

Center: Lillian Castillo as Daniela

Another high point for me was "Enough," the song sung by Camila, the mother of Nina and the wife of Kevin, as she gives them both a piece of her mind about all their fighting and pig-headedness that's been driving the family apart. Carmine Alers performs the song with equal parts fierceness, funniness, and grace. It's a wonderful surprising turn for the character, and it's delivered beautifully. After the show, I looked up and watched some clips of that song to enjoy it again, and I found actors who tried to push too much tragedy or too much rage into their performances. Alers' delivery felt exactly as the song should be.

Left: Carmine Alers as Nina

The night we saw the show, one of the actors must have been sick, because there was a cascading of understudies in a handful of characters, and one of the very biggest parts in the production, Nina, the romantic lead, was played by someone who doesn't normally play the part. She was great! Energetic and confident and nuanced and seemed like she must have been performing that character from the start. I don't know how much practice time understudies get, but Paola Hernández, who pinch-hit as Nina, and Emily Madigan, who pinch-hit as Carla, were both terrific. As was Debra Cardona, who's doing a short run as Abuela Claudia. 

It says something about the actors, of course, but it also says something about the production as a whole, and how well it works together. Portland Center Stage's In the Heights works together very well. It's one of those shows where, in the end, you think that maybe the most important "cast member" is the ensemble. It sure feels that way when the stage is alive with music and dance. Like the rollicking "Carnaval del Barrio," the song that celebrates finding joy in both good times and bad, In the Heights, through all the plot's ups and downs, is simply a really good time.

It's playing now through October 13. More information is here.

Photos by Owen Carey/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Poster art by Mikey Mann.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

a moment in the day: cherry

The grocery cashier picks up my bottle of tart cherry juice. "What do you do with this?" she asks.

"My husband mixes it with bubbly water, but I drink it straight," I say.

She looks close at the bottle. "You just drink it straight?"

"I really like things with a whole lot of flavor," I say. "It's really tart and just has a lot of flavor."

She runs the cherry juice over the scanner and the scanner beeps. "I don't do condiments," she says. "I like my flavor to be in my food. I don't buy plain tortilla chips and dip them in salsa. I get tortilla chips with the salsa already on them."

"Oh, that's smart," I say. I don't think it's necessarily smart, but I don't know what else to say.

She runs my kale and Stephen's smoked turkey through the scanner, puts them in the bag.

"If I buy mayonnaise, it's just complicated," she says. "Then I have to think, do I buy bread? Do I buy ham? Maybe I make tuna fish."

I could eat mayonnaise with a spoon. For a moment, I think about telling this to the grocery cashier, but I decide against it. The fact that you could eat mayonnaise with a spoon is probably not something you should be telling people.