Friday, March 19, 2010

"Hey, if a burning bush started talking to me, I would fucking listen, dude. If that happened to me, I would listen as carefully as I could."

-- Robert Crumb in an interview with Vanity Fair re. his graphic novel, The Book of Genesis

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Don't cry because it's over,
Smile because it happened.

-- Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What aren't you doing?

The following, while rather long, is a column I've saved in my files for 25 years because it speaks to me. It was written by Mark Seymour, a columnist for Graphics Journal. It was published in February of 1985 and I read it first while working as a typesetter for a Portland printing company:

I made a wrong turn somewhere along the way. It had a lot to do with not recognizing the kind of work I do in my head, as opposed to the kind I do in the world.

Most of us, I think, make assumptions about what we're going to be when we grow up. Those of us who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties had to consider the assumption we weren't going to grow up at all, that squat, black mushroom clouds would decide our future for us. But many of our ideas were based on what we thought we should be doing. For white, suburban middleclass kids like me, the future was college, and then a nice white collar job pushing papers around.

That construct, of the office job, got ground in pretty deep in my case. Both my father and his father had management jobs in engineering industries. So that vision was, perforce, the way a man made his living. My mother's father, on the other hand, was a self-employed cabinetmaker; it was never stated that this was an occupation somehow beneath me, but the message was delivered none the less. My memories of his shop, of the smells of the planed lumber, and the sounds of nails and pegs being driven home, are some of the best of my childhood. [Even more pungent, there was an actual, working icehouse next door to his shop. To find out that you had to make ice, not just pop it out of the refrigerator, was fascinating.]

So, what the hell does a cabinet shop and an icehouse have to do with graphic design? Not much. What they are, and I think each of us has some memories like them lurking in the back of our heads, are indicators to what I really am. And that tites into a lot of the things I've been complaining about in this column: the loss of tradecraft, and the evolution of printing into an electronic experience.

The situation is, unfortunately, that I'm a dirty hands guy in a clean hands job. And it's only going to get worse from here.

I was having lunch the other day with Janaia Donaldson, who teaches design for the UC Santa Cruz extension program. We were discussing the latest attempts at computer graphics, and fantasizing about the wonders of a mouse- or graphics tablet-driven machine similar to the Scitex, where you have the capability to zoom in on a single dot and modify its density and color. What a notion: dot by dot drawing at 300 lines to the inch.

But at the same time, what a loss. I've talked before about a generation of designers coming along who'll never know what rubber cement thinner smells like. Now, what about an entire generation who won't know what paint smells like. Or know how to handle a brush, or pencils, or even a felt pen. Just crank up the cursor, put the dots where you want them, and print it.

Somehow, that sensory deprivation, losing that sensual part of the process, is what we're faced with. Rapidly I'd resigned to it, but I don't have to like it.

What should I have done? What turn did I miss? Probably several, along the way. Most of us perform sort of an amoeboid dance with life; lurching along from one stimulus to another, seeking the path of least resistance. The driving force is usually that terrible insistance that I have to have a job. Which really means you have to have money. Now, I'm certainly in favor of having money. As much as possible. I've always said that I'd like nothing better than to have them back up the armored car and dump the sacks of hundreds on the porch. But, somehow, they never seem to get around to it.

So, that nasty requirement for things like the rent, and food, and some new books occasionally, keeps us moving when, perhaps, a little reflection might send us in an entirely different direction. I had a moment like that, fifteen years ago, and I missed it. What did I want to do? Print books. Not publishing, like I do now, but actually print them. By hand. Lead type, handset, handmade paper, hand binding. The works. A nice, dirty hands, sixteenth century job. I always was slower than the other children.

What happened? I got scared, like we all do. I would have had to find one of the handful of men in the country, in the world, who actually make their living doing it. I would have had to commit four, five, ten years to learning the craft. And, even then, who knew whether I would ever be able to earn my living that way.

I chickened out. I went to design school, got a job in an advertising agency, became a freelance designer, worked for various publishing companies, and now force you to read diatribeslike this. Was that a better course? Maybe. I ate pretty regularly, the last fifteen years. I did some interesting work, even one or two things I'm rather proud of. But was it really better?

The point of all this is to rattle your assumptions a little bit. I know too many people who are doing things they think they have to do, rather than what they want to do. Typesetters who should be painters, circulation chiefs who should be sailing the Caribbean, designers who should be trapping beaver in the 1800s, and illustrators who should be living in a Zen monastery.

What aren't you doing?


Two recently reads combined to tickle my funnybone and elevate my spirits with facts and observations that are a little out of the ordinary.

From The Book Of Useless Information (an official publication of The Useless Information Society) by Noel Botham:

* No President has been an only child
* Lee Harvey Oswald's body tag was auctioned off for $6,600
* On a trip to the South Sea Islands, French painter Paul Gauguin stopped of briefly in Central America, where he worked as a laborer on the Panama Canal.
* Tom Cruise's real name is Thomas Mapother.
* During his entire lifetime, Herman Melville's classic of the sea, Moby Dick, only sold 50 copies.
* Dr. Seuss coined the word, "nerd", in his 1950 book, If I Ran The Zoo.
* Spat-out food is called chanking.
* The word "samba" means to rub navels together.
* "Karaoke" means "empty orchestra" in Japanese.
* In 1946, the first TV toy commercial aired. It was for Mr. Potato Head.
* In Idaho, a citizen is forbidden by law to give another citizen a box of candy that weighs more than fifty pounds.
* If you yelled for eight years, seven months, and six days, you would have produced enough sound energy to heat one cup of coffee.

Moving on, the following observations are taken from Amy Hempel's short story, In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried:

"They say the smart dog obeys, but the smarter dog knows when to disobey."

"I enrolled in a 'Fear of Flying' class. 'What is your worst fear?' the instructor asked, and I answered, 'That I will finish this course and still be afraid.'"

"I sleep with a glass of water on the nightstand so I can see by its level if the coastal earth is trembling or if the shaking is still me."

"I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands. In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have been thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn. Baby, drink milk. Baby, play ball. And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug. Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief."

You Really Got Me

Some of my recent blogs have been sort of depressing since that's how I tend to feel whenever I watch or listen to national news lately. In order to counteract the blues, I wanted to include some lighter stuff.

When NPR aired a bit about Ray Davies of the Kinks, there was apparently a lot of complaints about how the host mispronounced his name. Fact is, they didn't. I've always thought that Davies was pronounced "DAY-VEES" but here's the final word from an earlier interview broadcast on NPR:

MELISSA BLOCK: Can you say your name for me? Pronounce your name for me.

Mr. RAY DAVIES (Musician): Ray.

BLOCK: And how about the last name?

Mr. DAVIES: Oh, well, that. That's Davis. I think over here the tendency is to say Davies. Davis is not quite right. So, think of it with a zed at the end, Z.

BLOCK: Daviz.

Mr. DAVIES: Daviz, yeah. But keep it kind of muted.

BLOCK: Ah, okay. Daviz.

Mr. DAVIES: And two, three, four...

BLOCK: Daviz.

Mr. DAVIES: I'd say you got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, there you have it from the horse's mouth: Daviz it is.


We learn something new every day - sometimes big, sometimes small and what we always thought we knew for a fact . . . isn't, always.