Thursday, December 31

Overtly Complete

Further proof that everything you can think of is already old news on the Internet: the Postage Stamp Calculator.

I'm in a postcard exchange network, Postcrossing, and so I'm sending postcards out to all nations of the world. Currently my sending limit is up to nine cards out there at once--everyone starts with a limit of five cards and you prove your devotion over time. Sometimes I have the appropriate postage and sometimes I've got a random assortment of stamps.

And sometimes I want to send a nice postcard that happens to be square. Square letters and postcards incur an additional 13¢ because they have to be hand-cancelled. Postal processing machines can't right the card/envelope into an appropriate position if it's not rectangular, so the post office has to tack on a little fee for the manual processing, yet the post office does not sell 13¢ stamps.

Enter the postage calculator. Type in all the denominations of postage stamps you have, type in your required postage, and it easily figures out how many of which stamps you need to meet the postage requirements. Sometimes you'll go over the amount, sure, but it's usually by only a few cents and it's still easier than driving to the nearest post office and buying the exact amount of stamps.

Or maybe it's not. If it's not, you should definitely patronize your local post office. If it's an inconvenience (like for me, between the holiday crowds and all the streets being coated in glare ice), go ahead and use up some of the extra stamps you have lying around.
Q: Is it easier to type in all the denominations of postage you have or to do the simple math and figure it out for yourself?

A: Go away.

Tuesday, December 22

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards 5

This is a clothes-rack of printed holiday cards drying, waiting for use. We have big plans for these, and we purposely made too many because I suspect that will not even be enough. Having collaborated on a fairly intricate and involved project like this, we're going to want to share the results with as many people as possible.

Personally, I was exceedingly pleased with how clean this print came out, how precisely the black print went upon the colored background without skootching over to the side or anything. I aligned both templates to the lower right corner of the foam waffle-surfaced pad of the Print Gocco, and that proved (in this instance, at least) a sufficient guide to line up the two prints. You can see how it could've gone wrong, right? The colors slightly to the right, the black lines slightly to the left, and it looks like a factory over-run. Bracing ourselves for that kind of disaster, we simply insisted that it would add to the homespun appeal of an amateur, homemade project.

"Homespun!" was my rallying cry throughout, every time a blob of ink smeared on the back of a card, or when colors of ink found ways to transgress their borders or when ink ran dry in an area. "Homespun!" represented the quaint, one-of-a-kind quality that a mass-production factory would throw out and chalk up to losses. Not so with us: some lucky recipient will come into possession of a flawed, sloppy (read: homespun) printing.

But actually, the cards came out great. I was impressed with how well they lined up and how clear the illustration came out. Even the worst of the batch still looked great! And I'd like to point out my wife's experiments with non-white backgrounds. Green paper wasn't ideal, and black paper was of course completely useless, but the grey cardstock is an interesting relief from the monotony of white. My favorite was the off-beige paper, like cheap elementary school drawing paper, and if I'd known how affectionate I would be for this effect I might have done the entire run with that paper. It creates a humble yet precious atmosphere with the image.

Oh, but we're not done yet.

Monday, December 21

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards 4

Here you can see what the first print looks like: large, amorphic shapes of color on a white background. You get the general suggestion of what the finished image is going to look like, which will really come to life once the black outlines are printed. Oh yes, I'm going to outline everything in black. That's something I haven't tried before.

The question there is, how thick should the outline be? Thick enough to cover the broad white gutters between the colored shapes? I opted not to do that but just to encapsulate the brown fur of the sock monkey ("fur" used in its loosest sense, of course) and draw eyes and mouth over the face, literally superimposing these over those features heretofore represented by large, vague colored areas.

Note this triptych: it is the progression of experience, application, and discovery.

When I printed the large colored shapes, ink ran over the entire stencil (between the protective layer and the mesh screen), going far beyond the areas I'd designated. That sprawl didn't print onto the paper, of course, but it represented a hell of a lot of wasted ink. "Gunk it up with lots of ink" is fine advice, but within reason: you're also throwing a lot of ink away unless you take pains to contain it.

And I did, as shown in the first photo. I readily availed myself of that adhesive grey foam and built narrow chambers for almost every single black line on the stencil. That ink was going to stay put and serve me only to goosh out through the mesh and onto the paper--no more of this broad spread of wasted resources!

The second picture shows you what I mean, and this is what it looked right before printing. Every tortuous alley is fully loaded with black ink. And it's not a lot of ink, either: a thin distribution proved sufficient for 20 prints before reloading!

The third photo reveals what I couldn't have foreseen. The broad spread of ink in the lower left is where the ink actually gooshed up over the foam wall and into terra incognito. That was doubtlessly the result of too much ink in one area, so a thinner strip would have served me. You can also see a couple joints bleeding with black ink where the seal wasn't secure. That's fine, it was still minimal spread and most of the ink stayed where I wanted it. Bonus: I only needed to refill the stencil once in the whole run, and when the cards were done I printed eight sheets of stationery with the black sock monkey outline as well as a stack of cards leftover from our wedding invitations. Now we have a supply of all-purpose sock monkey greeting cards waiting to be colored in.

Next: the finished product.

Sunday, December 20

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards 3

With the foam barriers in place, it was time to start inking the stencil. The red lips and brown fur would be easy because the colors those inks came in were suitable entirely on their own, but the blue was way too dark for the sky, unless the image was to represent night. That was not how we planned it.

Having worked with this blue Gocco ink in the past, I was quite prepared to mix it up. Adding white to blue ink was a complete failure and resulted in a not-noticeably less-dark night sky, so this time I drew out ten lines of white ink and one line of blue ink. This turned out to be a very good ratio, and when I mixed up the ink it produced a nice light blue sky color. But this mixture had to be manually spread onto the stencil. Lacking a thin, flexible paint knife with a narrow edge, I had to improvise. I tried a chopstick, which was fine for blending the ink but terrible for precise placement. Rebecca got me a plastic spoon which worked much better, especially when it broke: the handle was thin enough to daub the ink in tight turns and narrow areas.

Spreading the brown and red ink were no problem whatsoever. The thing to remember with the Gocco is to use a lot of ink: gunk it up. Really. If you're going to print a lot, of course you know you'll need a lot of ink, but even the instructional video suggests being wasteful. This is because the ink will not distribute itself evenly, despite your best efforts, and one area will become thin and then barren while everywhere else is still going strong. You can certainly refill the template while you're printing, but that is such precarious business! You peel back the protective plastic layer that's holding the ink down and the ink has of course applied itself to the underside of that. So you've got two goopy, inky surfaces facing you like a book of malign intent, into which you must delve and reapply the ink. That's not so bad if you're refilling a solid color, but if you have to blend and reapply a custom color--such as I had to, three times--you're asking for trouble the longer you're meddling with it.

I was disappointed to see the waffle-print in the stencil. I've seen it before and forgotten about it, but it showed up prominently in this run of cards so I'm going to document how to preclude this (probably).

That waffle-print comes from the foam cushion inside the Print Gocco. When you're making a stencil, you have a foam platform with a thin coat of plastic and that waffle-print surface, and upon that you place the image (carbon-black lines on a white background) and the blank template. The flash bulbs quickly build heat in the black ink which burns an impression into the template, and it's through that impression the ink must flow. But the waffle-print comes into play if you don't put a thicker card behind the white sheet with the blank ink on it. Place a thicker card back there, or a few sheets of regular paper, to mitigate the channels formed in the waffly foam surface and the paper with the black image will be nice and flat for the template. I won't make that mistake again.

Loaded with ink, the template slides securely into the lid of the Print Gocco and locks into place. It really is a cunning device: having forgotten the instructions (and not being able to read Japanese), I was still able to figure out how to place the stencil because there truly is only one way it can go in. And once it was in the rest of the process came flooding back to active memory, and I knew how to load the ink and everything else.

You can see the loaded stencil in place, and the white sheet below it would be replaced by 50 folded pieces of cardstock in succession. This is the fun part of the whole thing, notable for a project that is fun all the way through. I want to save the Gocco for special occasions, but once I get going on it I don't want to stop. Using this device is simplicity itself: drawing the design in Photoshop is harder than transferring it to the stencil and loading it with ink. Printing is so easy, more thought is required in strategizing where the printed items will be arrange to allow them to dry. And once the cards were done, I literally glanced around the room to see if there were anything else that needed printing on...

Saturday, December 19

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards 2

Now that the printing of the holiday cards actually seemed real and within reach, we moved swiftly on the next steps: printing the color background.

Most of the cards we're working with are of white cardstock, which is an easy and generous canvas on which to paint. All colors will show true and with some clever negative-space design, you don't need to use any white ink at all. I used that concept for the snow-covered tree in my holiday cards of a few years ago. But as Rebecca showed me, it pays to experiment with different colors of paper... to be seen shortly.

Photoshop goes a long way towards covering the bulk of the work that's required to create a template. I freehanded a prototype card and kept every element of the illustration separate in its own layer. I knew that for printing the card I would want to do the black outline last, so ultimately the sky, monkey's fur, and monkey's lips would go on one stencil. Three different colors, but the ink couldn't be allowed to run, which it assuredly would if I didn't set up any barriers.

The Gocco comes with foam pads that you cut up into narrow strips. One side has an adhesive that mounts onto the stencil, so you can create little walls to hold areas of ink separate from each other. I'd never played with this before and was looking forward to trying it out. It was easier than I'd thought, as the foam was very forgiving, bending in all directions or trimming easily for sharp corners. The adhesive formed a strong bond but, upon pressing, you had a short grace period in which to reapply the barrier if it didn't go where you wanted. It was pretty much an ideal substance to work with.

As seen in the second photo, I walled off the sock monkey's head from the sky (the large dark blob surrounding him) and sealed off a little chamber for the red mouth. It was important to think of this image in two forms: the detailed black lines and the large geometric shapes behind it. Photoshop allowed me to reveal or hide any aspect of the image so, in the course of drawing, I could also plan how much room would be needed by the foam barriers--or, in other words, how close areas of color would be allowed to lie next to each other.

I could have narrowed the space between the colored shapes, of course, by giving each color its own stencil, but that would have been two extra stencils and four more flash bulbs (part of the stencil-making process) down the drain. I'm trying to conserve Gocco resources because it's a deadstock item and no one's making more/new supplies for it anymore. That forces me to get creative with how I'm going to print.

Friday, December 18

Crafty Advice

I'm still working on the holiday cards but they're not done yet, so I still can't publish the photo-documentation of making these things. Because there's so many of them, it's a lot of work to execute each stage. My wife and I alternate shifts of motivation: sometimes she's all, "We've got to get these out the door this weekend," and I'm stuck playing free MMOs for my other blog. Alternately, I'm all, "Please do your part of the writing on the backs of the cards," because the handwriting would turn out all uneven once the interior mechanism is in place, and she's fixated on World 6 of Super Mario Bros. Wii.

But we are getting it all done, slowly done. I'm also learning a lot throughout the process. A few days ago I was talking with her about what it is I really, really need in terms of stationery. I saw this intriguing Japanese postcard kit--it uses shaped foam brushes instead of hair-tipped brushes--and realized that I already own the most important elements of that kit. It wasn't worth $24 for materials that could be gotten cheaply as individual parts. So I decided what I really needed was stronger cardstock, since I tried using the post office's pre-stamped postcards for a watercolor project and they warped all to hell. I was frankly surprised they reached their destination.

Harder cardstock is easily had, but does that solve all my problems? I can print my own stationery, I can cut out my own envelopes... ah, there we go! I need to create a more attractive laser printing system for address labels! Because I can find some appealing but very busy design on paper, carve it into an envelope, and there's no way I could use any kind of writing implement to scribe an address any person or machine could read (though I wonder if there is a reactive ink that a postal scanner could read better than the naked eye can? And if it's invisible, my gosh, wouldn't that be cool!).

Eventually I realized the problem isn't in the labels, it's in the adhesive. Remember how that one address label fell off of the envelope I sent to a new pen pal? And I've had other envelopes fall apart because the glue stick I used to seal them was grossly inadequate. And now I'm at a point in the holiday card assembly where I need to fold the cards in half and seal them in such a way the internal mechanism can move freely. I would've tried glue stick but actually used it all up on the internal mechanism (sorry to be so cryptic, you'll see what I mean soon) and had to fall back on this cheap Elmer's transparent glue gel, which is entirely unsuitable for this task. This morning I found that much of my binding had come unbound, and with a distinct lump in the center of each card, it's impossible to place a weight upon the card and ensure an even press all over its topography. The solution to that might be a small sandbag or even a bag of sugar/flour, in terms of household items, but I'm not going to fill 50 freakin' sandbags and spread them all over cards on the floor just to get a secure seal!

And then it hit me: I lost my job last Tuesday and, with my new-found free time, kept myself busy by sealing up the windows with sheets of plastic. Annual Minnesotan tradition for anyone who likes to keep warm. It took me way too long to realize that the double-sided Scotch window insulation tape is the perfect item for my stationery jobs!

I bought a spool of so-called double-sided tape before and it was crap. The adhesive itself peeled away from the plastic strip that was supposed to be coated on both sides. It was also unwieldy to use, tended to get tangled and folded, and brought much more frustration than convenience to my project. But this simple roll of Scotch window insulator tape peels off easily, pastes down neatly, trims handily, and whipping off its paper backing is simplicity itself. And that seal will hold! This is excellent tape, and I think I'm going to stop by the local hardware store and stock up on a couple rolls for personal use. Why didn't this occur to me before?

UPDATE: I got the cards finished and am hand-writing address labels to get them sent out tomorrow! I can start releasing my tedious photo-documentary!

Thursday, December 10

Audiobook Debate

Well, in the search for "other things to talk about" until our handmade holiday cards are done, I can muse about audiobooks.

There's a debate about these, has been for a couple years, and it's surprising to see who's on which side of the debate.  It flared up within the periphery of my consciousness when Rebecca got me an Amazon Kindle for a birthday/graduation present last April. I was all excited about it because I figured it was a luxury technology far beyond my reach, so I did some research about what it does, what it requires, what it's capable of, &c.

In this research I discovered one of its features is a voice synthesis program which can "read" aloud the digitized text on the screen. You can choose between a male or female voice, both speaking in an American dialect. The feature is for people who need their hands free, I guess, and can't hold the Kindle to click the Next Page button, or maybe for sightless individuals who can still download books and blogs in this way.

But there's an encampment of audiobook proponents who say that this feature unfairly cuts into their industry. Amazon is not paying for audio rights to these books, just programming the device with an ability to pronounce writing aloud. I think that's a valid concern for the industry, and I confess I didn't even know such rights existed. I know Roy Blount, Jr. is upset at this feature and has spoken against it.

I think he has nothing to worry about, however. If he'd downloaded his own book, Feet on the Street, and listened to it with the Kindle's voice synthesis program, he'd know that in no way is this a viable commercial competition. The program lacks inflection and cannot interpret the rhythm of a piece at all. Sometimes it breaks words into its separate syllables or mispronounces a word entirely. Once--and I've never been able to replicate it--my Kindle started reciting the programming code itself.

I bring up Feet on the Street in particular because I listened to the audiobook version of it. I'm told the abridged version was read by Blount but the unabridged was not, and that's the version we had, and it was read by someone who sounded like the spiritual and cultural opposite of Blount in almost every way. Try to imagine a down-home, backwoods travelogue of New Orleans performed by a young, genteel man fresh out of finishing school, striving to clearly enunciate every word. His soulless rendition of spoken quotes is quite comical. The Kindle would have done a bad job of it, too, but it would have been a different bad job.

As well, the National Federation of the Blind argues in defense of this Kindle feature, such as it is, because it provides access to literature that isn't yet available in Braille or in audiobook format. It kind of sucks to tell someone that, because they're blind, they're not entitled to the newest bestsellers on the market. And of course no one's explicitly saying that (who would dare?), but you can see how an argument against a handy speech synthesis program like this could be construed that way.

On the other hand comes Neil Gaiman's argument, that the audiobook industry needn't feel threatened by the Kindle's voice synthesis program--indeed, it should rally and play up its own strengths. It should explore not just its advantages of a colorful, flavorful voice actor performing a written work, but also what distinguishes audiobooks from print literature. I agree with him on all points: I've enjoyed wonderful audiobooks and developed favorite readers based on their interpretation of the text, a dimensionality not available from simply reading.

This isn't to say I don't like reading: I love it, I love the free reign over visuals I can attribute to my own impression of a book, but I've also come to enjoy listening to a talented recitation of a book.

Thursday, December 3

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards

We're actually doing holiday cards this year! I've done them in years previous when I was single, and then my wife bought me a Print Gocco--which I'd never heard of before and was thrilled with... thrilled to the point of possession. I hold the Gocco very dear, especially as its supplies are increasingly scarce and not cheap to replenish, consequently.

I've used the Gocco for holiday cards one year and also for printing T-shirts for our wedding party. I'm reluctant to whip it out for any small project, preferring to wait for something elaborate requiring many, many prints.

One night, Rebecca entered a certain state of consciousness and delineated several creative ideas for holiday cards, some of which surprised her the next morning. We drew up some prototypes, argued about how to attack this project, and then nailed down a final iteration. When we were absolutely ready, we pulled out the Gocco and started making stencils. The photo here shows, essentially, the main face of the card without giving everything away. This will be my first print with four colors and I'm... insecure! I'm not sure I can pull this off but I'm behaving as though I absolutely can. The print will involve setting up boundaries for the ink, as well as mixing the ink prior to application.

I'm not doing a very good job of keeping these cards a secret. I had to reupload the photo with a crystalizing filter to distort and disguise the images we're working with. I'm very excited to get to work on this project and send it out, but I've been documenting the process and actually have four entries written and ready to go online... but I've been forbidden from posting them until the cards are actually in the mail.

I'll have to find something else to talk about in the meantime.

Wednesday, November 25

Lost in the Mail

Bad news: one of my letters was lost in the mail. This is always discouraging when it happens, and it's one of the inherent risks of postal service.

I was using some address labels from Red Horseshoe, and they're very attractive but not entirely practical. They place the return address directly atop the destination address, and my concern was that an automated scanner might interpret the whole thing as one big address. When my recipient e-mailed me to ask whether I'd written her, I knew something was wrong because anything I send from the Central Loop Station usually shows up within 48 hours, in the contiguous U.S.

Sure enough, she e-mailed again to inform me that only the address label made it to her, accompanied by a boilerplate apology from her local post office. I knew the adhesive that came with these Red Horseshoe address labels was weak and ineffectual in all cases, so I attempted to bolster it with glue stick, which is usually pretty secure. But perhaps the paper I used was too smooth or not porous enough to give the glue some hold, and the label still flaked off the homemade envelope.

While e-mail has none of the romance or hands-on appeal of penning a letter and handcrafting an envelope for it to ride in, it is still exponentially more reliable than postal mail. And I'm not advocating a switch from postal mail, no, for I've had many successes and relatively few failures using this system. (The failures have been pretty dramatic, however.) It's just that I'm not a gambling man, and sending something via postal service is always a gamble, no matter how good the odds, and sometimes I lose.

Friday, November 20

The Big Leagues

Ugh, haven't written in here for a substantial period of time. I apologize for that--I haven't abandoned this place, but I've been relatively preoccupied with other projects.

See, at work I've been recruited to try out copywriting, on top of my copyediting and proofreading duties. This is very exciting for me: I've always had all sorts of creative suggestions for copy crossing my desk, so to actually start with a blank sheet should be more inspiring than asking someone else to tweak something they've written, right?

Yes and no. A first step into copywriting is definitely a desirable direction, but the project I was given was fairly involved and intense. It would be like handing Dostoevsky to a gifted fourth-grade reader, with a time limit. He could certainly parse the bulk of it but would he be able to polish it off in two weeks? There are definitely other copywriting jobs I could handle, but this one was a bit over my head.

And I went from three hours of free time at work to six hours of solid writing. It was great to have more hours to tack onto my time card, but was I producing quality copy, or copy of the quality they required? I began to feel insecure, as though I'd bitten off more than I could chew and that I stood to let some pretty important people down. The project has since been shifted to a more experienced copywriter... and my schedule has lightened considerably.

I wonder whether it would have made much of a difference to take a copywriting class during my college career. I think it could have been helpful, but there were definitely aspects to this project that were exceptional to most copywriting tasks. I'm trying to say that I don't think I'm a bad writer for not pulling this off, and a formal class may have helped but that this situation was exceptional.

So I'm still learning. Maybe I'll practice with other clients--being a contractor, I can work with anyone--or maybe I'll redirect my energy toward short stories and freelance editing jobs. I'm just trying to stay positive about the whole thing. It wasn't my fault, it could've happened to anybody...

Thursday, November 12

We Want the Right to Abuse Our Rights

This is an old picture, I don't remember which protest it's from.  There was some kind of political event, and some batch of random college kids turned out to make sure their voices were heard.

And their voices demanded free speeck.

More specifically, they demanded "free speeck," instilling a sense of irony with the use of open and closed quotation marks.  They wanted their speeck to be "free," that is, not free at all, and what they wanted free was their right to speeck, that is, not actually speeck at all.  Whatever that might be.

This quotation mark scramble comes up all the time.  ALL THE TIME.  As a copyeditor working with adults on every level, it is surprising and discouraging how rampant this misuse is.  In fact, it has been abused so widely, so frequently, throughout such a protracted period of time, I'm a little surprised that Merriam-Webster hasn't canonized it and declared it yet another valid convention of speech.

I tried to create a little mnemonic device to help people remember what effect quotation marks have: fresh fish.  Would you eat "fresh" fish, or even fresh "fish?"  It helps if I'm there in person to do the hated air-quotes.  This drives the point home, and hopefully it gives them something to remember next time they're writing anything out.  It's just an interesting semiotic breakdown, to me, that someone could look at quotes being used ironically but interpret them as emphatic.  Fresh "fish," to them, means it's fresh and it's doubleplus fish.  The freshness is regular and the fishness is superlative.  But gods preserve anyone to whom that sounds especially delicious.

As for the egregious misspelling of "free speech," I don't know how to address that.  It is far beyond my ken what may have been going through his head when he thought he would defend the nation's right to free speeck, but first he should have made sure he knew what the hell he was saying.

Or!  Maybe that's what he was protesting!  Maybe there was a parade of editors and proofreaders, and he was defending his right to abuse spelling and punctuation!  That thought only occurred to me just now, and it makes total sense.

Tuesday, November 10

Daabs-Attest, 1888

This was a funny little project that went nowhere. I'm tying it into stationery interests because it involves an antique, old handwriting, and very old newspaper.

My wife brought me out to yet another thrift store last year--she's a great fan of these places and I can't deny she's come away with some impressive scores at local outlets like Saver's, Salvation Army and Ragstock. They're just not my thing unless I'm trying to assemble a Hallowe'en costume, though I used to hit Ragstock quite frequently as my source for military surplus coats and bookbags. Anyway, this time we went to ARC Value Village and I was surprised to find three very nice sweaters, a satisfyingly terrible Conan the Barbarian comic, and this thing.

I'm not saying I'm mystically inclined or anything, but when I pulled this frame out of a sloppy array of other frames, I couldn't put it back. It looked like an important document some family lost--I couldn't imagine someone selling it to a thrift store, so perhaps it ended up here after an estate sale, like, all leftover and unclaimed property could have been distributed to a thrift outlet. Is that reasonable? Does that happen?

It was a certificate in a stout wooden frame, and I couldn't understand the language in which it was written. Something about it seemed very important to me so I picked it up for a couple bucks. Once home, I immediately began to disassemble it into its component parts (with my cat's help, pictured). I polished the glass, which was unevenly cut on a couple corners, with jagged teeth extending beyond the intended dimensions of the pane. It's like someone wasn't paying attention or didn't like their job.

It had seen a lot of action in its day, as evidenced by the damage sustained to the wooden frame at the corners. When the glass was out I spent a lot of time polishing it up and saw that some flaws were inherent to the manufacturing process, like interesting little striations of bubbles and warps in the glass here and there. Time had also marred it with little stains and scratches, those couldn't be helped. As for the frame, I took to it with wood soap and tried to replenish this parched fiber as much as I could. I have no idea whether I improved it at all but it did look a little nicer when I was done.

I bent the tiny nails in the back, removed the wood panel behind the pane, and extricated the document. Online research suggested to me it was written in Norwegian and was a birth certificate for someone. That's quite reasonable: my area is typified by its population of Norwegian Lutheran settlers (see also: the Coen brothers' Fargo). I figured, once the frame was reassembled, I might contact Mindekirke and see whether they had any interest in this thing, or else the Minnesota Historical Society. Out of reverence for the object, I hope they do and that this testament to someone's birth isn't kicked to the curb yet again.

Behind the birth certificate, however, between it and the wood backing were a couple sections of folded newspaper. This is the kind of find I dream about but only hear about happening to other people, usually when they're tearing a house down or stripping the upholstery off an old couch. Someone had packed a couple pages of the now-extinct Minnesota Times. Research shows me this started as the Daily Times in 1854, then soon converted into the Weekly Times. Now, the information I'm reading, the Minnesota Historical Bulletin, says that the Times merged with the St. Paul Press in 1861, but the issue I scanned here shows the death of Colonel Albert Lea which occurred in 1891, suggesting the Times was intact three decades after it was supposed to have been subsumed by the other paper. I don't know what to make of that.

...Oh, wait, this is the Minneapolis Times, which ran from 1889 to 1948. Never mind, that's completely reasonable. Anyway, I scanned in the birth certificate--too large to fit my scanner, I'll reassemble it in Photoshop--and all the newspaper stored in the frame. I think these are all marvelous documents and I wonder whether anyone besides me will think them useful at all.

Thursday, October 29

The Traveling Scholar

Ugh. Somehow the first half of my post was actually deleted or overwritten at some point, so my narrative seemed to have jumped into the middle of the action without prelude. I'll try to sum it up again, in that I was only going on about my bag fetish. Ever since getting out of the military, I've had a separate radar in my consciousness for increasingly efficient bag systems. It's good to have specialized bags, satchels, &c. for specialized purposes, but the holy grail of this is of course the grand go-to, the catch-all, the bag of all seasons. Have I found it? Will I ever? I can only leave this for the philosophers to debate.

I'm brand loyal to Swissgear for their many, many fine products. I can't seem to find my own purchases available on their main Web site, but instead I found many other items to enthuse and lust after. Lust? Absolutely: they don't instigate a biological response but I crave the efficient, multifunctional, sturdy design that is the hallmark of Swissgear. Why, just today I lapsed into a fugue state, pontificating over what it would be like if Swissgear actually designed a coat...

I used the courier bag to carry my laptop and for travel, but the problem with it is that it holds an awful lot and has a zipper to expand its content, so I can really overload it with a lot of heavy books and technology, contributing to cramped shoulders and imbalanced muscular strain. That's all my fault, though, I'm just being irresponsible. I loved that it seriously could hold all my crap, though: the main body had plenty of room for my laptop, which is an oversized model due to its wide screen, as well as folders and books for my college classes, and an array of handy, secure pouches and pockets. Into these went all my fountain pens and ink cartridges, plus letters and small notebooks to be accessed rapidly. I tried storing my cellphone in there but wound up forgetting about it more often than not.

I also found a handy satchel they call a boarding bag, suggesting its use for plane travel. I doubt I'll ever live in a society so sophisticated they would opt to travel with a small satchel rather than lugging their entire household in three oversized suitcases to be crammed in the overhead compartments, but the idea is appealing. I used to call this bag my "traveling office" because of everything it held: perfectly sized for my Kindle (with case), multiple Moleskine notebooks (hardcover and paperback), a robust pen collection, separate pouches for filing stationery, letters, and paperwork, and still more pockets than I needed. That is a desirable feature, to me. It even had a little pocket for my iPod Nano and a hole to run the headphones through, now a standard feature on all backpacks and such.

Most recently I picked up the Synergy notebook-carrying backpack. I was torn between my desire for its absolute utility--sheer volume of stowage and balanced weight on my back/shoulders--versus its perceived stigma: I only saw real geeks using it, apparent social retards. I'm quite geekish myself, I fully acknowledge and proclaim this, but I do shower a few times a week, I can state my position in a discussion without alienating everyone around me, and I can maintain eye contact during conversation. That is, I hope, what sets me apart. At length I finally got over myself and bought it and have been trying it out. Reflexively I want to adore it, but I'm still in a process of getting to know it, familiarizing myself with its physics as boys will.

It has two large compartments and two smaller front pouches, plus an unusual design for bottle holders on either side--they stretch to hold the whole bottle and enclose it entirely in a zippered mesh pouch. The very front pouch is small and I use it to hold bike maps and occasionally a breakfast bar; the larger one is my stationery repository (see pictured) and it holds more than I have labeled in the photo. Next is the first large compartment, holding two folders, the Kindle, a series of Moleskine notebooks, and still has considerable room for more--occasionally I stash my thermal lunch bag here. There's also a hanging pouch not just for my iPod Touch but also my headphones! Even more convenient. And the compartment behind that, up against my back, is where the laptop would go--my oversized laptop just fits in there, with a mesh pouch for power cords, laser mouse, and peripherals.

There is no question this is a very handy bag to have, and I'm sure I will overload it also with books, computer, and everything else, but at least it's built to distribute that weight more evenly. Already this advantage has manifest: yesterday I was about to miss my bus but was able to sprint a block to catch it, something I might not have pulled off if I had to secure an over-the-shoulder bag like a fully loaded courier bag.

I have a large Chinese (in style if not in origin) stationery chest at home, which comes with folding iron legs to support it about a foot off the ground. Something like that is how people used to transport their papers/parchment, inks, quills, pens, sealing wax, cinnabar and chop, &c. Now I've got the same thing, but a more compact containment system that in turn holds more compact instrumentation and supplies. In some abstruse way I'm continuing the tradition of the traveling scholar/scribe, hauling a small library on my back with all my writing accoutrement. I think that's what I like best about all this, feeling like a contemporary interpretation of an ancient tradition. That's how I romanticize it, anyway.

Tuesday, October 27

New Word: Suzuribako

Guess I can do a "word of the day" here, since I said I was going to and failed to do so. Today's word is: suzuribako. (Oh yes, I never said I'd stick to English words.)

A suzuribako is like a little stationery set from feudal Japan, precursor to the inkstand or desk set. It contains an ink-stick, a grinding stone (suzuri), several brushes and perhaps a container for water. The box is usually of lacquered wood, but this means it needn't always be, and in fact it seems I have a suzuribako at home. It's made of a flimsier cardboard body covered in fabric, which is more commonly found throughout stores that sell exotic merchandise in the States. It fulfills much of the function of a suzuribako but isn't as durable or, I suspect, respectable.

That is to say, it's good enough for me and my purposes, but I wouldn't show it off to honored guests. As of this writing I'm including a picture from the Vanderbilt gallery but tonight I'll replace that with a shot of my own suzuribako.

Why would I have one? Once upon a time, I fancied I'd attempt to learn Japanese brush painting, and then became immediately intimidated by all that it entailed. Then I figured I could at least learn to write kanji, and I did in fact practice for a whole week yet somehow failed to attain complete fluency in the Japanese language. I couldn't even remember any of the characters I practiced, so... I keep it around in my stationery chest and will probably take it out and practice it when I'm a little more earnest about learning Japanese (or, for that matter, any of the Chinese dialects).

Monday, October 26

Artistic Admiration

This is not just another attractive postcard, this is a tribute to its artist, Cory McAbee.

I was struck by this imagery as soon as I saw it: lounge rat lighting his cigarette off his own sacred heart.  What did that mean?  The ramifications flooded my mind.  Such a gorgeous illustration, and I pore over the details every time I look at it.  What does the hair tell me about the person?  Why's he standing in front of a velvet curtain? How can someone look so shifty and yet bear a sacred heart?  Are we playing with words now?

I met Cory once at the Triple Rock in West Bank, Mpls., while waiting for a po' boy prior to watching his band perform (now they're Stingray Sam but back then they were the Billy Nayer Show).  A friend of mine was bouncing so I explained to him who I was there to see and was waxing panegyric over this writer/director/musician/artist when there was a tap on my shoulder.  It was Bobby Lurie (drummer/actor), seated behind me, who only grinned and indicated Cory sitting across the table from him.

My capacity for speech was reduced to babbling.  My bouncer friend left me to sort myself out, and soon I was posing for pictures with this creative genius.  There aren't many people who can leave me speechless, but there are a few.  Hero?  I wouldn't say hero: Hercule Poirot is a hero.  Usagi Yojimbo is a hero.  These are fictional icons who have carefully managed flaws and a number of strong, uncompromising merits.  A real person can't be a hero to me, or I might just as well point at myself and use me as a source of inspiration, and that is ludicrous.

But there are some people I admire, not just because they produce stuff I like (Guy Maddin, Wes Anderson, &c.) but because they are capable and diverse, and they are seemingly driven to create the best they can at all times.  Gene Wolfe is another example, a writer whose craft transports me to another world.  The effect is as convincing and thorough as that.  I've written to him to explain as much and have probably alarmed him with my fervor so I struggle to maintain a merely conversational tone.  It's just a bit overwhelming to have an absolute favorite writer/artist who is still around to talk to.

Wednesday, October 21

My Delirious Love-Affair with Language

Currently I'm contracting myself out (yes, that means I'm my own boss, my own company--so weird to think of it like that) as a proofreader/copyeditor.  People hear that and wince inwardly (or outwardly).  They imagine this must be among the most boring, tedious work in the world, and that I must have a huge stick up my ass.

I can't say one way or the other about the latter, but the work is far from boring.  I'm perhaps unique in that I have a real passion for it and, consequently, I enjoy the hell out of my job.  It's not that I get an endorphic rush out of telling people how wrong they are, correcting their spelling errors, stuff like that.  Most of the time spelling doesn't even come into it: the issues have to do with the slight nuance of one word choice over another, the structure of a sentence or a paragraph, the emotional feel of the text as it pertains to the message we're trying to get across.  I'm cleaning things up, making them look nice, not power-tripping over stupid people.

Because language bears such delicious nuance for me on multiple levels, I'm honored to be trained as its custodian.  And again, this does not mean that I browbeat people until they use formal grammatical structure, not at all: the context is the heart of the matter.  If you're speaking to an adolescent audience, a formal tone will be off-putting and repulse people from your message, even if you're trying to carry valuable information to them.  If you're submitting a job application or writing a column for the New York Times, a street-casual tone would be grossly inappropriate, by the same token, and I think no one needs that explained overmuch.  Rather than dressing language up in a suit and making it sit up straight, I want to see it dance, flow, transform.  I want to see it thrive in as many situations as possible.

Included is a picture of my personal little library at work.  The old Webster's New World dictionary doesn't have a lot of functional value, being several decades old--it does not reflect how people currently speak.  My mom gave it to me as a gesture of congratulations, both at landing this job and finally wrapping up my BA in Creative Writing.  When I need a dictionary, my go-to is Merriam-Webster's, as an American, though I do have access to the OED through my old school account and its etymological value is beyond reckoning.  I also have several style guides: Chicago, NYT, and AP.  Those are just basic, essential guides for professional writing and citation.  They're also a useful plea for sanity when you just want things to look nice, and that itself is the first rule of editing: it has to look nice.  My Copyediting guide also reminds me of the core editing lessons I learned in class.

I also have The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, an informative and fun guide to grammatical structure.  I can write a good sentence, but I can't identify the parts of speech very well.  I know adjectives and pronouns, but I'm not so clear on the past participle or subjunctive clause, and so I refer to this often.  Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog also serves this purpose, through the archaic practice of sentence diagrams.  I don't know how I got a passing grade in high school English, never having learned how to construct a sentence diagram.  Less useful is Sin and Syntax, a former textbook written by a woman who lends herself to judgment.  Her picture makes her look a little dumpy and plain, but she writes as though she were a full-blown sybaritic temptress.  The book is as much a guide to the language as it is her self-delusional manifesto of lush indulgence and sensual revelry.  The author's need to represent herself thusly actually distracts from the useful information in here, but there is useful information in here.

The Artful Nuance was a gift from my wife, and it frequently comes in handy.  It specializes in word choice between similar terms, helping to clarify which is closer to what you're trying to express.  The Idiot's book, Weird Word Origins, was a whimsy purchase I deeply regret.  Poorly researched and glazed in unevolved humor, this book so infuriated me that I set upon it with my red editor's pen and marked it all to hell.  Later, I realized I could have simply returned it to the store for a full refund.  I keep it on my shelf to remind myself to restrain my emotions, even in the face of the most egregious text.  At the other end of the spectrum is The Chronology of Words and Phrases, a gift from a friend who knows me quite well, evidently.  Reading this book, which explains the formation of various words throughout history with their colorful background stories, is like eating an entire box of chocolates all by myself.  I use it as a reward or a pick-me-up.  I don't read it straight through: I leaf through it and am inevitably delighted by whatever I find, wherever I land.

Monday, October 19

Pens: the Kaweko Sport

Today I'd like to chat about one of my preferred weapons: the Kaweko.

Actually, the silver ink embossing on the side of the cap says "Kaweko Sport," so this shortened, compact pen must not be the standard model. Browsing Google Images for "kaweko pen", I find... little useful information. There's a picture of a special edition Forbidden City pen, a thumbnail of a vintage poster, quite a few Japanese market sites (these offer suggestions of a longer standard model), and a fairly deep examination of which pen it was Anne Frank used to write her diaries--conjecture is that it was likely a Montblanc, a Pelikan, or a Kaweko.

And it is certainly not the same Kaweko cited in Moses' bible of arcane magic, books six and seven: Altissima Dei Verba Spirituum Cactiva Mosis Aaronis et Salomonis. That's merely coincidence, I'm sure.

I like the Kaweko Sport for its size and its pleasurable nib: it's either gold or has enough gold on it to write very smoothly across the page. Mine is a medium tip, so it produces satisfyingly thick lines. Sometimes I like thin lines, provided the ink is still dark enough, and for that the Slicci is ideal. And the thick lines rather determine what font I'm going to write with, moreso than the texture of the paper. For example, if I had coarse paper I'd happily revert to a ball-point pen, but if I was using the satin-smooth Rhodia paper, I'd have a hard time justifying that. I'd either very carefully choose a favorite ball-point (lately I like the Bic Atlantis) or I'd avoid it altogether: a surface like that calls for a fountain pen, to me. And with a medium-tip Kaweko I have to write larger letters but with smooth paper I have greater control, so I can use a very nice, controlled font.

I like the Sport model in particular because it is so compact: the body of the pen screws out of the cap and then reverses to nestle in the cap, making a longer pen right there. Sealed, it can travel anywhere, in a shirt pocket, jeans pocket, or rattling around in my backpack. I don't think it has ever loosened itself and wrought inky havoc upon clothing or property. I have other pens which have done precisely this.

I wish I could remember the brand of ink cartridges I'm loading in my pen currently. (Update: Private Reserve Ink.) They're made in Slovenia, which doesn't mean a lot because an awful lot of ink comes from there. Its primary feature is that it is a fast-drying ink, which is handy for left-handed writers who are pushing their pen from left to right, rather than a right-handed writer who is pulling it from left to right. With a regular pen or most rollerballs or gel pens, the leftie gets to smudge his/her palm in a fresh trail of ink, but not so with this marvelous Slovenian fast-drying ink. I'll look it up tonight. And the colors are vibrant: I chose a musky rose ink and a deep forest ("Sherwood Green") ink, the latter of which stands beautiful and bold against a clear, perfect sheet of Clairefontaine. It is, all around, a pleasurable writing experience.

Thursday, October 15

Envelope Assembly

I've had reason, recently, to get back into making envelopes. I'm quite pleased to do so: I have a number of pen pals--some of whom are feeling quite neglected lately and so I thought I'd produce something a little special to begin to make up for my inattention.

Several years ago I picked up a packet of envelope templates from a local store, Lunalux, who in turn informed me they were made by another local crafts-person. I won't expound upon the potential environmental benefit yielded by purchasing locally produced craft supplies, but I was pleased to be part of an insular crafts-sphere, of sorts. The envelopes I made from these templates were so admired by one of my pen pals, a DJ in Madison, that she requested a kit of her own, which request I fulfilled.

The templates come in many sizes for different functions. Many are suitable for posting in the mail and may handily travel around the world, depending on the quality of paper you use. Others are a little more intricate or awkwardly sized for postal mail and would better accompany a gift or else might be handed off in person. I prefer those envelopes which lend themselves to being mailed, and I'm careful to outfit them for optimal postal travel: stout paper, all flaps and corners sealed flat, judicious application of stickers, &c.

These pictures are of my personal favorite template, a capacious accordion-sided envelope. I love it because it looks fairly elaborate, hearkens to the classic accordion folder, and permits quite a bit of storage. Also, as pictured, the broad front has enough room for these particular Red Horseshoe address labels as well as postage--not every envelope can say that, not until you start talking to large business envelopes. (Note: lovely though the labels are, their adhesive gum is weak and useless on its own; with the application of Elmer's glue stick, however, it becomes a sovereign bond.)

With this iteration, just as a little quelque chose, I tried out a manual airbrush/paint spatter, I guess you'd call it. It's a simple little device, basically a long, thin metal tube you dip into ink or thin paint/dye, then blow in the other end to spray it upon your paper/canvas/surface. I've never used it before but bought it several years ago with the desire to practice at it. Now I've finally used it and I'm not sure what caused the large globs of ink (I had the foresight to choose a grey ink rather than something darker and less forgiving), whether a finer spray might be achieved with a thicker--or thinner--liquid or whether I'm just doing it wrong, somehow.

So, there we are. I've made four of these bad boys: one will stay in Minneapolis, one will fly out to Turkey, and the other two? I'm not sure now what will happen to them, where they will end up.

Wednesday, October 14

Working Vocabulary


This is evidently a "cloud" of the most frequently used words on my blog, here. Created by

This only shows me that I need to broaden my working vocabulary.

Sunday, October 11

Information Tends to be Freed

Here's something funny: I was dinking around online last night and found, through nebulous contrivance, a Web site new to me, Is This Your Name. You type your name in and it does a multi-platform Web search for you, turning up all sorts of results ranging from the practical to the amusing. From there, you can see who else shares your name, where you've implanted yourself... and who's borrowing stuff from you.

Inspired by a class I took at Metro State, one focusing on children's literature, I dug out some old books from my childhood and scanned in their endpapers.

End papers for McCall's Giant Golden Make-It Book, Simon and Schuster, 1953.

Without being conscious of it, the decorative endpapers were as dear to me as anything else inside or outside the book. I smiled to see them again, this capricious little design meant to serve as nothing but filler and perhaps some foreshadowing to the book's contents. Endpapers also help establish an atmosphere for the reader, and especially in children's literature their design is a strategic deliberation.

What Is This You showed me was that there were a couple of admirers of my scanned-in endpapers that I didn't know about. They each credited me, and if they hadn't I'm sure I wouldn't have heard of this at all.

The blog Yara Kono, in Portuguese, found it and cited me as "Christian Wilkie" (the surname I will be changing to soon). But the Babelfish program is inadequate to translate the author's caption into anything comprehensible.

Similarly, Kelly Rakowski, who maintains a very interesting archive at Nothing is New, has an account with (a "social bookmarking" site I've never heard of) and kept track of the endpapers here. She credits me as "Christian Fredrickson" and it's interesting to me to see who chose what name for me.

Not that interesting, I guess. And I'm not upset that they posted the image: it wasn't mine to begin with, it was only my uncommon find, and each did credit me appropriately. I would've liked a linkback and an e-mail notification, but those are just my druthers. They did everything just fine. And the issue is quite moot anyway: these posts are well over 15 months old, so it's been going on for a while. In all likelihood there are many other places also referencing this picture that I know nothing about. The discovery of Is This Your Name only reinforces how large the Internet is, to the point where sections of it are practically inaccessible (barring luck and chance).

Friday, October 9

DIY Postcards: Think Very Carefully About It

Ugh, this didn't work out so well. I attempted a watercolor of a scene in Minnesota, on the back of a pre-stamped postcard from the Post Office.

The watercolor bit was done with watercolor pencils, which are like colored pencils. I lightly sketch out the images and shading, then I go over it with a paint brush and a little bowl of water. That's it. It's like cheating at watercolors. All the control you need is to not let one area bleed into another area by daubing or strokes, unless the effect is intentional. Here, you can clearly see my amateurish and inept pencil lines, betraying my lack of complete comprehension as to how this simple system is supposed to work.

Then I did the trees and land with black Sharpie. That was also a mistake, as the paper is already so thin that the Sharpie can't help but bleed through, but now the paper is also quite damp from being soaked in water. The other side is almost entirely unsuitable to be written on, yet I had the audacity to write a short message and a destination address, when really this card should've been mercifully shot behind a wood shed.

The mirror image was easy, though. I just decided where the horizon should be and replicated my watercolor strokes on either side of it. For the land, I drew a long, thin line, then punctuated it with short, graduating lines, ensuring equal length on either side of the horizon line. Easiest to do this by turning the card sideways and sketching quick, short lines down the length. After summing up the basic growth pattern of the few kinds of coniferous trees in the original photo, an impressionistic rendition of them was easily done with more scrawlings by the marker.

Let's just say this little project didn't turn out exactly as I'd hoped. It's heading to New York, which itself is funny because the recipient stated her hope to hear from people around the world: instead, she gets a wrinkled, stained little card from some aging kid in a flyover state.

Thursday, October 8

Writing to Other People

Okay, so, basically I just like to send out mail. I like to write recreational mail and send it out to friends. I'm a little disappointed when they don't write back, which is frequently, but there is a brassy core that is my delight at distributing interesting postcards and stationery, and it is dented and a little burnished but otherwise uncompromised.

When I graduated from high school and was about to go into the Army, I very shyly asked a close friend if she wouldn't mind exchanging letters with me. To my delight and confusion, she readily agreed, and she became my first serious pen pal. She introduced me to other media that provided networks of pen pals and correspondents, and when I was stationed in South Korea I was actively writing to no less than thirty individuals. Mainly these were gothchicks around my own age, scattered throughout the U.S. I'm in touch with none of them now.

I got out of active duty in '91 and went into the National Guard until '95. During that time I secured my AA degree at a community college and started further schooling up in St. Cloud, MN. That university provided me with my first e-mail account and I spent a lot of time figuring that thing out. The mail program was PINE, text-only, and when you printed out your e-mail it got sent to a room across the hall where a chamber of large dot-matrix machines cranked out tractor-fed sheets of paper, maybe 11" x 17". They were huge, I remember that, and they took up a lot of space as I explored the Internet through Magellan, printing out all my interesting findings. I happened to find a Usenet group dedicated to pen pals and quickly made a few: it seemed people were very anxious to meet and talk to other people around my nation, around the world.

I'm only in touch with one of them, a lady in South Africa. We're not in regular correspondence, but we do touch base every now and then. I've also sent her regular mail, and she has to me, but it's quickest and most secure to fire off an e-mail to her. I still have our dot-matrix, tractor-feed printed-out conversations, a thick ream folded in half and stored safely away. The one thing that always impressed me in our chats was how indolent and spoiled I felt after listening to her talk about her life. She never actively made me feel that way, no, this was a compare-and-contrast I did on my own. I thought things were hard with school and having to go into the Army for college money, but her personal anecdotes blew me out of the water and I think that's when I started to learn to shut up about my petty gripes.

But anyway... I love writing letters. Not so you'd know: I've dropped the ball on a number of conversations. A friend in Madison, WI had to hammer away at me to get me to write back, and once I did we had a flourishing exchange, it was great, but why did it take so much effort for me to get in the habit of something I tell myself I love to do?
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Wednesday, October 7

Stationery: Mr. Lunch

Wow, someone's actually reading this blog: guess I'd better resume writing in it.

Here's another sample of favored stationery (hope I didn't already cover this one). It's another fold-and-mail variety, very handy when you want to shoot off a note to someone--long note or short entirely depends on your handscript and the pen you're using. With a 0.25 Slicci I could generate a two-page letter in this arrangement. I'm sure I've come close.

I'm completely unfamiliar with the Mr. Lunch brand. I have no idea whether it's an ongoing thing: T-shirts, novelty socks, lunch boxes (how cool would that be), stickers, throws, bobbleheads, iPhone skins, &c. (A cursory scan reveals there is indeed a "highly professional" address book and blank journal on It's something I wouldn't mind seeing everywhere, and yet I hope this isn't the case. I like that it's obscure and special like this, that the people who are most likely to see it are people who like to exchange letters with friends. It's like a bonus: not only do you enjoy the neo-Luddite riches of literacy, but here's a swank little icon for your amusement.

The artwork is familiar. Doesn't it resemble the art in They Might Be Giants' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" video? Again, cursory research reveals that J. Otto Seibold is the talent behind Mr. Lunch, the TMBG video, as well as Olive, the Other Reindeer. (Scholastic profile.) I like his style, I really do. I like the abstract tangent, I like the childish simplicity and earnestness of his expression. There's an iconic rendition not far from Keith Haring's oeuvre (yes, I drank the '80s Flavor Aid).

Suffice it to say: this is a very satisfactory product. I used it too quickly and only have one piece left, which I was saving for a collection but now that I've scanned it in and preserved it perfectly for all time (barring system failure), there's no reason for me to keep it around and I will send it out to someone special who hasn't received it before.

In Other News: I'm reading Dr. Richard Restack's Think Smart as part of my reasonable campaign for self-improvement and my paranoid campaign for staving off Alzheimer's. One of the exercises the author cites for keeping one's mind limber and broad is to learn a new word every day. This is, of course, increasingly difficult as one narrows down all the words with which one is unfamiliar. For example, in following Peter Sokolowski on Twitter--he updates the popular words people are searching for on Merriam-Webster--I find I know all of the terms he presents. That's reasonable, that's just trending: it only represents the curiosity of a predominant population less literate than myself. However, Wordnik produces, better than 50% of the time, a word I've never heard of or at least am unfamiliar with. They are a very delicious word source--their Web site is an indulgence of mine.

Where am I going with this? At Dr. Restack's recommendation, I'm going to start devoting posts to learning new words. I still have access to the OED, which is a mother lode of obscurity and obsolescence and their attendant etymology! I'm going to present a new word, relate its definitions, touch on its etymological underpinnings, practice using it in a sentence, and (privately) challenge myself to write a paragraph implementing one week's new words. (Dr. Restack suggests this is more easily done with Wordsmith's A-Word-A-Day e-mail updates, as they are thematic from week to week.)

And--don't be alarmed--I'm going to experiment with jump tags, so I can post an intro entry and the rest must be clicked on to read. Not doing this to be difficult, but I think it'll create a more interactive experience when guessing at new words. If it's too obnoxious I'll cut it out.

Tuesday, September 29

My Korean Journal

I kept a journal while stationed in South Korea, in the Army. I'm not a great journal-writer: I had a large, ragged paper-cover three-ring notebook in high school that I used during my senior year. I recorded various confrontations with a certain bully one or two years younger than myself (that's how pathetic I was: little kids felt safe in picking on me) and my depressive personal thoughts. I tried to get a girl to read it, this beautiful woman home from college and performing with me over the summer in a community theater troupe. She described my journal as something Holden Caulfield might have penned. I was flattered, but I got nowhere with the girl.

So I graduated from high school, went straight into the Army, spent 19 months in Fort Ord, CA, and finally transferred to Camp Carroll, South Korea. I felt pretty lucky: I'd requested getting stationed in Germany and got California, which I'd been given to understand was a highly desirable assignment. I put in for Germany again and got S. Korea, which I learned was one of those "best-kept secrets" places. I wasn't up on the border, no, not on the DMZ. I was a couple hours south of that. I saw no action and only trained in the field for two weeks out of my entire year there.

Out of curiosity, I just looked up my barracks on BEQ Hill, outside of Camp Carroll. Strong nostalgic sense, going back to how I used to skateboard down from the barracks, running along Happy Mountain, down to base and past it into the ville. All the bars, the tailors, souvenir vendors, all the women working to earn their freedom...

I befriended those women. Where other soldiers were looking to get drunk and get laid, I was still at the stage of looking for friends. Shy and socially awkward, I was best suited to practice social skills on a woman working at the bar, someone working to get money out of me. Her job required her to be patient with me, so I could be myself and she couldn't run away. Eventually I made very good friends with her and all of her "sisters" in the bar. They all liked me because I was gentle and sweet and respectful, and mamasan who ran the bar came to value me for that as well. Once they hid me after bar close so I could hang out with them at a soju tent and get drunk all night. Mamasan gave me a farewell gift when I outprocessed: a little ceramic vase with a blossom painted on the side. Unlike most treasures from the first half of my life, I still have this.

It must've happened that I brought my journal to the bar one night, purely with the intent to write a few thoughts down, and the girls wanted to know what this was. They immediately took it over, writing poetry in Korean, drawing romantic anime-style women and nature scenes. Everyone took a turn, from the naughty, flirty girl to the usually reserved and sedate "big sister." They wrote on several pages, little doodles or entire songs they liked. I was honored with the gesture and still take this journal out to look at once in a while.

It wasn't designed to be a formal journal, but rather a business planner. It has a black plastic tri-fold cover and reads "PROCESS TODAY," embossed on the front in gold ink. Inside are skinny folders for business cards and notes and a thick notepad of paper. The paper is warmed and blotched in places, so it must've sustained some water damage, probably when it was stored with a box of random crap in my mom's garage. And it's not a complete journal: I bought it after I was well into socializing with the locals, some of whom brought me out for a day on the town in Taegu. It has recorded the latter portion of my stay, the adventures toward the end of my assignment overseas. It also has notes from the start of my college career at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, friends I was making, women I was struggling with dating. Socialization was so much harder with people who had the option to walk away and pursue other interests.  Harder for me, anyway.

I also kept a sketchpad around, this obtained in California. For an exercise I used to bus out to Monterey and Cannery Row, hang out in cafes and sketch the interior. I wasn't a diligent artist but at one point I had a bug up my ass to practice scenic sketches.  I resumed it in South Korea, hanging out in the countryside around my barracks (the area was much, much less developed in 1991 than it appears now in Google Maps). This picture was a half-hearted doodle to study a vilager's house out in the country.  I was practicing my technique as much as I was trying to preserve my impression of the area. I wish I'd done more sketches like this, actually, since my photos were pretty much of my AD&D gaming group and a few women I had short-lived crushes on. I really didn't do much scenic photography, recording the downtown infrastructure or preserving the landscape as I passed through it.

I've had a long, long relationship with paper. I maintained a number of pen pals while I was in S. Korea, and I used to sketch little moments from my days for their benefit, too. One friend even reports she has saved all my letters and asked if I'd like to rifle through them. I think I would be hideously embarrassed by who I was back then and what I found suitable to talk about, but it might be worthwhile to scan in some of the illustrations.

Friday, September 25

Playing With Kozo

These envelopes were made with a super-handy envelope template I picked up at a local store. It's a kit with a selection of templates to make envelopes of various sizes and for various functions. My favorite was an accordion-sided envelope with a large back flap, best when made with stout parchment. I thought it was great simply for what it was, but it was especially handy when mailing an especially voluminous letter or a package of fun little extras.

The pictured envelopes are of the standard variety, but I'm coating them in a sheath of kozo paper. This is a Japanese paper made by laying out a large sheet of paper fibers in a room with a ceiling designed to leak profusely. The droplets create the pools and holes in the paper, which is allowed to dry with this random, natural formation.

Obviously it's terrible for making an envelope and worse for writing on, but it is a marvelous decorative feature. I dressed up these plain, lusterless envelopes with a judicious application of kozo and was quite happy with the results. The trick is in finding a way to glue the kozo to the envelope. My technique was to glue-stick the entire outside of the envelope and press the kozo flat. This was a poor idea because it left an envelope with dozens and dozens of sticky little holes all over its surface. A better solution might have been to use a spray adhesive on one side of the kozo.

Wednesday, September 23

Exploring Semiotics

Don't you hate it when you have a GIF and it's a tedious and stupid trial to convert it to a JPG? I did not save this item as a GIF, it's terrible GIF material, but that's how it landed in my hard drive. I hate that.

Also... no one really knows why there's writing on this skull. There are dozens of skulls like this in the same gallery--we might call it an ossuary--and many of them also have writing across their foreheads, and many of the words can be translated (but not all), and to this day we're not precisely sure of the function of this. Were they curses? Were they identification? Were they simply reminders?

It looks creepy, but it also looks really cool. Of course it looks cool! It's a skull with awesome handwriting: two incredibly cool things! Would I decorate a room in such skulls? I would, until I got creeped out.

But what does this skull say to you? When you glance at it, what is the message that flashes through your own head? What do you suppose the function of that handwriting could possibly be? Does this image make you feel a connection with the past, like some isolated group of people were doing their best to reach forward into the future and connect with some unknown reader? Or does it make you feel threatened, like there's much more to the world than you were previously aware, and there's much you don't understand?

How else could you achieve this effect? What else could you use to strike your impressions of the skull into the imagination of another viewer? What other effect could you achieve that would evoke the same emotions as that dignified handwriting?

And if you ever found yourself in a position where your only reasonable course of action was to inscribe a message upon the skull of a deceased person, what do you think your motives would be? What could have driven you to such straits, beyond a simple lack of paper?

Tuesday, September 22

Actually, You Know What's Hot?

I know this is old news, but it's still one of my favorite pictures: Paris Hilton strutting around in her DIY T-shirt.

I know some people are like, "Aw, man, come on, lay off of her. At least she's trying, you know? At least she's doing stuff. How many shirts have you made lately?" (The answer to that is two, plus one creeper.)

Others are confused: "What's wrong? What's the joke?"

And to them I say, once again, everyone needs an editor. Mme. Hilton only hammered another nail in her credibility's coffin with that T-shirt, of which she was so proud. She doesn't think she needs an editor, but she's unable to pick up on her errors. It would be like someone saying they don't need a car engine because when they sit in the driver's seat, they actually lapse into a convincing hallucination in which the landscape around them is flying past. They are unable to detect what's wrong at all.

That's a pretty terrible analogy, I know, but I can step back and look at it and know it needs to be recast. People who need editors can't. They make these laughable or compromising errors and they have absolutely no faculty with which to self-monitor their work. I think that's even worse than someone who looks at the gaffe, shrugs, and insists it's "close enough."

There should be no editor out of work (unless they're very poor at their craft), and there should be at least one in every business in the world. What a dream it would be for me to work for a company in China and get my hands on every document before it leaves the office and gets disseminated around the world! People who collect hex errors, though, would become bored and furious at me for it.

"Is it a perfect plan? ...No, but I think that's what I like about it." - Captain Amazing, Mystery Men

Monday, September 21

Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1873

Not the greatest quality scan, but I have the source material and I can do it better in the future.

For that matter, I have a broad selection of old images to choose from: a couple weeks ago I attended an antique sale during Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, MN, and came away with two hardcover books. One was a collection of Dorothy Parker short stories and the other was a collection of Harper's New Monthly Magazine vol. 48, comprising all issues from Dec. 1873 to May 1874.

Gods know I could've snatched up all those volumes, of which there were four or five, I think, off that table, but there's no need to be greedy. One volume of six issues is enough for me, with a wonderful selection of old illustrations and woodcuts, not to mention the original writing of the period, both journalistic and fictional work! There's even a gossip page in which a writer, Maunsell B. Field, relates anecdotes about his encounters with Charles Dickens, Pope Gregory XVI, and his service under President Lincoln. It's great reading, and I look forward to finding cause to employ so many dozens of these wonderful, forgotten illustrations in new applications.

Friday, September 18

Sugoi Kawaii

Oh, that darling Japanese stationery! One of the easiest ways to embed yourself in the imagination of another person is to simply find an outlet that sells a pad of super-cute Japanese stationery, write out a letter of a few pages, and send it along to a friend. The onus of being interesting has fallen squarely upon the shoulders of another nation, and Japan is more than apt to rise to the challenge.

These are little pads of paper with designs on them. The designs are in groups of ten or 20 sheets, with several variations in one pad, so you can select one of each design and write a small five-page note, for example. Sometimes they come with little envelopes, too, but these are formatted for Japanese addresses so you kinda have to superimpose our Western addressing system upon that.

I like them because they're cute in a way that isn't insulting. For some reason, with gimmicky Western icons of cuteness, I feel like the item in question carries the expectation that I have to meet it halfway in the suspension of my belief. On an abstract level I see a pitchman in a business suit wearing a shit-eating grin and proffering some tedious little doll at me, insisting, "Here's your brand-new beloved nostalgic icon! We're sure this doll is one for the ages, and you'll love her ever more with each year!" But they say this every year with some new piece of crap, and they're not even listening to themselves.

But with the Japanese items--well, maybe this is my naivete, my perception of everything Japanese as exotic and therefore favorably biased--it seems like they come with their own stories and backgrounds. Rather than "here's Strawberry Shortcake and all her dessert-themed friends," or "here's Rainbow Bright and all her color-themed friends," it's like "here's Ikumono: she loves green tea and lemon cookies, but her handwriting is not very good." There's something in those details that appeals to my humanity. I like the cute little character with weird little quirks. I want to meet her friends and see her town. I really feel like there's a context to them, a background, a substantial world that some thought went into.

The US keeps trying to refine a marketable Utopia, but Japan has mastered wabi-sabi, the beauty of slight imperfections. I know which world I'd rather live in.