Monday, August 30, 2021

Book Cover: A Year in the Life of Death

I've been having a love affair with a book, the latest book I've been working on creating a cover design for. That's a pathetically clunky sentence, but I don't even care. I love this book that much. 

For one (small) thing, it's a bucket list book. I've never designed for a poetry collection before.

It's also a book written by a friend, which makes it extra special.

But beyond that, I have a history with this book. Back in March of 2016 I did a reading with writers Shawn Levy and Shannon Brazil at Salon Skid Row. Curated by writer Josh Lubin, Salon Skid Row was a great Portland reading series that I hope returns once we can get out and do live in-person readings again. 

Everyone who read at Salon Skid Row got their picture taken under the Off-Track Betting sign

That night, Shawn Levy read some poetry he'd written based on obituaries in the New York Times. It was unlike anything I'd see him do before. I was used to Shawn as the writer of books like DeNiro: a Life and Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey, and the Last Great Show Biz Party. These poems he read were like taking his interest in biography and, instead of going expansive with it, paring it down to the barest of details. 

The way he focused on the New York Times specifically touched my nerd soul. And I was completely enthralled with the idea of poetry based on obituary. It's about death but, more so, it's about tribute. It's about life.

What began with that reading at Salon Skid Row grew into a book: A Year in the Life of Death. And what a year that was. To borrow from Shawn's introduction, 2016 was, "the year that everybody died: David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Antonin Scalia, Nancy Reagan, Fidel Castro, John Glenn, Janet Reno, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, etc. … a roll call that was also a history of the 20th century."

I don't generally solicit design jobs; they generally find me—but when I heard this was going to be a book, I went after it. I sent a please-think-of-me email to the publisher, University of Hell Press. I sent one to Shawn. I may have made a pest of myself. I don't know. But I got lucky and got the job. And when publisher Greg Gerding sent me the manuscript I devoured it. I often don't have time to read a book I'm designing for, but I couldn't stop. Each poem was a tiny mystery story with the last line revealing the subject. I'd scroll and not allow myself to look ahead. I'd try to figure out who each poem was about before I got to the end. I was surprised by how many of them made me cry. Many also made me laugh. The book was more than I'd even expected it to be, indeed a history of the 20th century full of fascinating information and social commentary and nostalgia and, of course, human stories that ran the gamut from celebrities to folks I'd never heard of. 

I was over the moon. And not only was I hired to design the cover but he asked if I'd like to design the interior as well.

Yes, please, yes, please.

I got together with Greg on Zoom and we talked about the book, about book covers he likes, about thoughts both of us had. The main consideration he had for the cover was that, in my color scheme, I use a powder blue that could evoke the color of the blue bags the New York Times comes in.

Greg also had an idea of a tunnel of concentric shapes, much like this design for The Bell Jar, but the center or entrance of that tunnel would be the simplified shape of a gravestone rather than a circle.

I went to work on that idea and also did some concepting of my own. 

I thought about how to evoke the concept of a year. I mocked up an idea using the phases of the moon with a newspaper hanging from one of the phases. I thought about how to evoke the concept of death without being too on the nose. I mocked up an idea of a collaged lily, the flower of funerals, made of scraps of paper—scraps from obituaries, showing the names of some of the recognizable figures in the book. 

The original subtitle was NYT Obit Poems 2016, but as you can see, I screwed that up in my first couple samples, leaving off the word Obit. I liked the idea of torn bits of paper overlying my backgrounds and used that in my titles and author names. Of the two blues I tried, Greg preferred the lighter, so that was the color that continued forward into later samples.

Greg liked the sample using the grave-shaped tunnel and asked that I try it with cut paper rather than torn, with straight placement instead of skewed. All-caps for the title.

In the lower left, by the way, is the University of Hell logo, which gets placed on the front covers of all their books, often in fun, creative ways.

While making suggestions for the tunnel concept, Greg encouraged me to try other ideas, and I kept coming back to the names. What could be a better selling point for the book than the names of all the amazing subjects of Shawn's poetry? I tried the names running behind the title, obscured by blots of ink to evoke the newspaper printing process. I tried them hanging over the title on a torn piece of paper. I tried throwing them across the cover and piecing the title and author together from their individual letters. That one might have been a little strange.

Greg and Shawn chose the sample with the names on paper looming over the title. Now that we had a direction, we refined it, making the names smaller, more newspaper-like, added the ages in. We changed up the subtitle, tried different textures. In the end, when we had a cover we all liked, I sent it to my mom to show off. She said her first reaction was to be stunned by the names. By the sheer volume of the names. That reaction brought home for me, I think, what really works about that design. How you can't help but be surprised by all that came to a close in 2016. And the names on the cover are only a fraction. It truly is a history of the Twentieth Century, rendered in the elegance and thoughtfulness of Shawn's words.

A Year in the Life of Death is available for preorder through the University of Hell Press here. It officially pubs on October 12, right alongside another really great U-Hell book, 2020*: The Year of the Asterisk, an anthology of essays exploring that very fraught year. In fact, the publisher has added a $5-off "2021 U-Hell bundle" that includes both books, and that offer can be found here.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

A moment in the day: bee

When Stephen leaves for the dentist, he asks me to catch the grasshopper that's on the inside of the bathroom window curtain and take it outside. "Do you want to do your good bug deed for the day?" is how he asks it. I take a water glass into the bathroom and gently lift the curtain back, cup the glass over the grasshopper's body, then slowly lower the glass down, sliding it against the curtain, until I can slip a piece of paper across the rim and trap the grasshopper inside. 

I take a moment to view my captured friend. It sits on the curved inner surface of the sideways glass, tiny bright green body, angled limbs and antennae. As if it's not at all cornered in a small pocket of space, it sort of casually raises one of its hands to its mouth, grooming. Making itself pretty.

I take it outside. I don't want to put it in the grass because the grass is dead and hot in the beating-down sun and maybe the grasshopper will die of this heatwave, so I let it go next to that low-to-the-ground plant that creeps across the pavement in the corner where the shade is.

At the very edge of that creeping plant something is moving. I crouch down. It's a bee. It's lying sideways on the pavement, little limbs twitching, and at first I think it's fallen over and can't right itself. I consider taking the corner edge of my piece of paper and using it to gentle the bee upright. But then I think, no, the bee is dying. If you're dying, you don't want someone coming along and trying to shove you up on your feet.

The other day I saw one of those memes showing a closeup of a bee with text declaring that these are the most important animals in the world.

I sit down next to the bee. There are tiny spots of bright orange pollen on its legs. I don't want to leave it, somehow. Its tiny legs twitch in an almost frantic, convulsive way. 

Even in the shade, the pavement is hot. This burning planet.

The bee slows its twitching.

The bee dies.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

My dad

I lost my dad a year ago. Not long after, my aunt asked if I was going to write an obituary. What I wrote was mostly that, a little bit upside-down from the traditional structure, but something that pulled together who he was, at least to me. I thought today, on the anniversary, I would post that here.


Don Chandler Little was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 6th, 1945, and grew up in Maysville, Kentucky, the only child to Frank Chandler and Stella Aline Little. As a kid, he loved playing baseball with the neighborhood boys and listening to games on the radio. In the summers, the family would vacation in Florida where Don would play golf with his dad, check out the Daytona Speedway, and lounge on the beach, devouring paperbacks one after the other. In high school, he played French horn in the band and landed the lead part in his senior class play, Mr. Coed.

When he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Accounting from the University of Kentucky, Don was awarded a Corning Glass fellowship, which gave him the chance to travel the world. He saw Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Israel, then headed to Europe. In Brussels, he took a pause in his touring to work at the local Corning Glass offices to earn some extra traveling money. Stopping one day into the First National City Bank, he was waited on by Kathy Cooke, an American living overseas with her Naval family. He asked her out and the rest is history.

Because Kathy invited Don home to Holland to meet her family. "I know what's going to happen," she said. "You're going to meet my sister and fall in love with her."

And he did.

And he did.

Lucy Cooke and Don Little met in mid-January of 1968. Their first date was Chinese food in London's SoHo in February. In April, they were engaged. Statistics on marital success based on longevity of courtship be damned.

They returned from Europe and were married on August 24th, 1968. Don had landed a job at Arthur Andersen and Company but first headed off for a few days' honeymoon, followed by a trip to his boyhood home in Kentucky to visit the local draft board. Unsure how to classify the young men who'd been awarded Corning Glass fellowships, the draft board had given each a business deferral, but now that Don's fellowship had come to an end, that classification changed. To 1A: draft immediately.

"Your wife doesn't happen to be pregnant, does she?" a woman working in the draft board office asked him.

She explained that if his wife were expecting, he'd be eligible again for a business deferral. Eugenia Bain was born approximately nine months later.

Statistics on domestic success based on preparation and planning be damned.

In August of 1971, Don still working for Arthur Andersen, they moved to Melbourne, Australia, where their second child, Edina Kathleen, was born, in September of 1972. They lived there until May of 1974, when they moved back to Washington DC, and then, a little later, Southern California, welcoming son Frank Chandler in July of 1976.

By then, Don had left Arthur Andersen and was working for US Rentals. The family of five became a family of seven with the addition of Carmen Garcia and her two-month-old baby Liz. In the early Eighties, Don started G/L Systems, which provided payroll and other accounting services to local businesses. The family continued to grow, welcoming the next generation: Amy Bullard, Alex Bullard, Abigail Bailey Little, and Hana Tateno.

In Don's business G/L Systems, which he ran for almost forty years, he described himself as a "one-stop comptroller." But what else was he? Husband, father, grandfather (known to his grandchildren as Pops). Lover of sports, particularly ice hockey and baseball. Avid reader. Punster. Clever namer of pets. Ardent scholar of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Ardent enthusiast of tasty things including frozen yogurt, milkshakes, Junior Mints, Heath Bars, Klondike Bars (his last discovered treat), and Lucy Little's excellent cooking. Lover of music. A storyteller at heart. A true gentleman. A computer whiz who was known to review new programs for software creators. The dad who did his kids' taxes for years even though taxes were his least favorite activity in accounting. Bringer of surprise bouquets of flowers. Orchestrator of cunning and elaborate gift schemes. Sporter of the most dashing beard. A quiet force who knew his mind and spoke it well. A generous person. A respectful person. An authentic person. The perfect emblem, in this daughter's opinion, of what a man should be.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

a moment in the day: half

Writing group night. We're meeting on Zoom again. We met on Zoom starting all the way back in March of 2020 and through until the last of us was fully vaccinated this past June. Then it was a lovely two months of meeting in person, sitting together, talking, hugging, laughing. But now Delta is surging, young kids still cannot be vaccinated, and there's new understanding that even those fully vaxxed can spread it. So I and my friends are back to growing our proverbial victory gardens: masking, zooming. Doing what we can.

As our Zoom squares start to fill up my laptop screen, mine looks wrong. Stretched out like when you try to watch a movie with the wrong aspect radio on your TV. The stretching pulls everything thin like my face and the wall behind me are vertical lines with tiny lines of space in between.

"Do I look weird to you guys?"

They say I don't. But on my screen I'm stretched thin, and I find I have to shift all the way to the right side of my computer in order to see my whole head and shoulders centered in my square.

"Gigi," Doug says, "you're half out of the frame."

I'm stretched so thin that half of what they can see I can't see and half of what I can see... Oh, I don't even know, but I shift back over to where the tiny dot of camera at the top middle of my laptop can catch me full on. Now everyone can see all of me but I can only see half of me, one eye, one shoulder, half a head.

As my friends catch up on the week, I peck around Zoom trying to figure out how to fix it. If I'm stretched so wide am I also stretched some top to bottom? Like, if I see my head are they just seeing my neck or something? I hunker down a bit. I click over to Google and try to look up the problem.

"Gigi," Doug says, "now I can only see the top of your head."

I abandon Google, straighten up. What I look like on here isn't for me. It's for my friends to see me and for me to be engaged with them. So I relax into my half self and join the conversation. 

Are we being stretched thin by covid restrictions? Are we feeling like we live half lives? And in a way: why not? What are we willing to sacrifice? In order to come out of this whole thing someday not only with our health and the health of our loved ones, but knowing that we did our best, our actual best to be the ones who didn't spread this virus around?