A typeface of forgotten keys

When I was a toddler, my parents gave me some keys to play with, and I made them into a typeface. That part happened 30 years later. After posting Who are you? Answer in three typefaces. a couple weeks ago, I decided to go rooting around on my hard drive, and find the images.

FORM. As in, “what form of madness is this?” Read and find out!

I’ve always loved keys. When I was a kid, I used to find old keys around my grandma’s house. I assumed that if I looked hard enough, I would find what they opened and obtain either a secret diary from a forgotten relative, some sort of magic box like The Indian in the Cupboard, or ACTUAL TREASURE. A key without a lock always seemed to have infinite possibilities, until I grew up and realized that they all went to boring things like toolboxes and dilapidated sheds.

The keys my parents gave me lived in hiding for decades.

Amongst the many pieces of hand-me-down furniture in my first apartment was the well-squashed beige loveseat that my brothers and I climbed and jumped on as small children. My parents had planned to throw it out almost ten years earlier, and had moved it out to the garage when they were delivered a new loveseat that we have all since forgotten* because it was a boring usurper of childhood joy. I was fifteen at this point, and performed one of the most revolutionary acts of my life thusfar: I slept on the couch in the garage for several nights as an act of protest. I shielded the couch with my own body. You know, in case the trash pickup happened by surprise in the middle of the night.

I won. We moved the couch to my bedroom, which was great because then I had a shorter, squishier, less supportive alternative to my actual bed.

Figure that I was a toddler in the late 80s, and that we moved from one house to another–in a different state–in the early 90s. Figure that the couch escaped its death in the early 2000s, which involved a move into the garage and then another move to a second floor bedroom. Figure that it crossed state lines once again, down one flight of stairs and up two, into my first apartment. Figure that it finally met its end at the bottom of those two flights with an ignominious “Free Couch” sign on the side of the road after the springs popped out to the extent that we’re legitimately lucky no one had an artery-severing gash.

Figure that the set of keys my parents gave me as a toddler hung in the bowels of the couch for 25 years, across multiple state lines, up and down all manner of stairs.

I can’t throw out something like that, especially not when there’s still a tiny part of my brain, the part that writes fiction, which still believes the keys might open up boxes containing the truth about my secret sibling whom my parents never told me about**. I tacked them up on my bulletin board as a sort of totem. When I got Creative Workshop for my birthday, and found that one of the creative exercises was to make your own typeface out of household objects, I barely spent any time at all overthinking my options: I went for the key ring.

The letters that came out the best. Except for G, which looks like a dangerous old-fashioned baby carriage.

I like how my typeface turned out, and I might even vectorize a handful of the letters. But what I thought was really cool was that, around 30 years after my parents gave me the keys to play with, I finally did.

Like all parents, I’m sure they had been hoping all along that I would be a typography prodigy.


*I mean, my parents paid for it, so they might remember. And I can’t look inside my brothers’ heads. And actually, my mental image of it is starting to come clearer as I write this, and I think it was some kind of leather or leather-like material since it was the early aughts and that’s what everyone was down with back then. But I stand by my words.

Are you sure you don’t want any?

It is a white-frosted cake edged with ripples and poofs of day-glo aqua created from an unfathomable amount of food dye. “Happy Birthday” is written in perfect school teacher penmanship, in some sort of color-coordinated bright shade that would make the 80s proud. And of course, there are handfuls of thick, round sprinkles, in case you needed to be bludgeoned over the head with the overall message: this is a festive fucking occasion.

I don’t want any cake.

Yes, I am sure, thank you. I don’t need to reexamine this decision.

It’s not about the cake. It’s not about the calories or sugar, or even the wheat, which I don’t digest well. It’s about you questioning my decision, which is among the most inconsequential decisions I will make in my life. Maybe I’m not actually sure? Maybe I haven’t thought it through enough? Maybe I should text a friend and see what they think.

Chocolate ganache sandwich cookies with red and pink M&Ms

Although it’s not limited to women, a lot of women are socialized to ask this, and in name of being a good host, to push food in general. I wasn’t socialized this way, and it’s not my personality either. I’m way on the other end of the spectrum: I forget to introduce people properly, and to offer them water or stale gluten-free granola bars until they’ve been over for hours.

But asking “are you sure you don’t want any?” isn’t hospitality; the dish has clearly already been offered at least once. That was hospitality. “Are you sure?” is pushiness disguised in a hideous leisure suit of unwanted fruit salad.

And yes, I see that you are putting the pile-of-pudding-and-Cool-Whip-thing in the fridge where it will be inaccessible for all time. Since I didn’t want any before, its sudden inavailability is a moot point.

On a similar note: yes, I’m sure I don’t want a seat. I drove to get here; I’ve already been sitting. “Are you sure?” is definitely not limited to one thing, which is why I didn’t add cake, alcohol, or children to the post title.

Don’t even try to turn something down if your weight is anywhere in the same solar system as skinny. At the lower end of my general weight range, it’s not enough for cake-pushers to ask, “Are you sure you don’t want any?” at minute-and-a-half intervals. At the lower end, they also add, “But you’re so skinny.”

The wise ass part of my brain would always think, “Yeah, I’m skinny because I’m not eating the cake.”

“Skinny” is an adjective that gets thrown at women below a certain weight, whether or not it’s an accurate term. You should eat the cake because you’re skinny. I’m not skinny, and in fact, have a fair amount of muscle. But that doesn’t matter either. Skinny people can turn down cake too.

And I still don’t want the cake.

If I say, “Next week I’m going to hop a train with nothing but a backpack, a notebook, and a toothbrush,” you should probably ask if I’m sure. You could say that it sounds like quite an adventure, but am I sure? Have I considered that the day-to-day of this might not be as romantic as it sounds, and that water is heavy but also necessary, and oh hey, that I have a kid?

If I say, “Tomorrow I’m going to go get a face tattoo so I can emulate my favorite Star Trek character, Chakotay,” you should question this too. Feel free to ask if Chakotay really is my favorite character, really, and if a face tattoo is the best way to pay him homage, and even if it is, is there the tiniest chance that a face tattoo will negatively impact a lot of the rest of my life?

If I say, “I am going to get a mountain lion as a pet,” you should absolutely feel free to ask if I’m sure, and to point out that I’m not big on cats, and that some aspects of this plan might need a little work, even if, technically, the lease allows us to have a cat.

But it’s not a major life decision or a ridiculous plan. It’s a pan of brownies. The top is shiny and crackly in the way that brownies from a mix usually are. Some of them have been mounded up on a paper plate in a heap that is several steps shy of decorative. Which doesn’t make them bad, but I don’t want any. Even if you don’t want to bring home most of a pan of brownies because you will be tempted to eat them all, and you didn’t substitute the applesauce for canola oil like Weight Watchers said, dammit, I don’t want them.

I am sure.

I am still sure, even though you asked again. The brownies are not my problem.

I am sure.

Who are you? Answer in three typefaces.

Every once in awhile, a friend or acquaintance will read a bunch of my posts and say, “Hey, I was stalking your blog.” I always thought this was strange because my blog is public. If I didn’t want people to read it, it would be on my hard drive, not the internet. Then I started to wonder if the feeling that they were “stalking” my blog came from the design.

Only the top row can answer “yes” to this question. As of this writing, most of my site is in Open Sans. Top to bottom: Open Sans, Fira Sans, Alegreya Sans

Instead of a design that says, “Hey, this is someone’s personal blog. Maybe they don’t totally realize this is online and anyone can read it?” I would like a design that says, “This is the website of a speculative fiction author and freelancer, and you can read what they have to say about some stuff.” These roles, along with enjoyment of blogging and web design, are why I have this website. Yet, it doesn’t do a good job of expressing them, for good reasons as well as bad ones.

Hint: they’re the same reasons. They boil down to the fact that, although I’ve been designing website for 20 years, I didn’t design this site myself because I needed to avoid waffling. And maybe even waffles.

What’s wrong with the current design? In some respects, not much. It’s readable, for sure, and with the exception of the subheadings, (H2, H3, H4, etc) I like the typography. I even like the “Bleached Landscape” color scheme, which I picked in defiance of my own attitude that if something isn’t dark-colored, it’s deeply uncool.

However, the design is also decidedly personal blog-like. It also has a slightly dated look to it, which honestly, is part of the reason I picked it. It reminds me of a nicely- designed Livejournal with some cool details. There’s nothing actually wrong with it because I don’t consider not following current trends to be a wrong. What matters is that it doesn’t match my current aesthetic well enough, and I didn’t design it myself (aside from some tweaks over the years, such as the background from the cover of Spirit Notes Fading).

There are plenty of pre-made WordPress themes I could choose from to change the blog vibe to something more professional, if that’s what I wanted to do. But since web and graphic design are two of the areas I do freelance work in, it would be preferable to have a website of my own design. And since I’m also a speculative fiction writer, that is something I would also like the design to express.

One question I’ve been wrestling with: to what extent do I want to adopt the common tokens of author websites, such as typewriter-style headings and bookish body text? Do I need to bludgeon visitors over the head with my absolute writerly-ness, when everyone else who has a blog is also a writer? Many fiction authors’ websites appear designed to convey that they aren’t just some blogger, but a real writer. A writer’s writer.

As far as I’m concerned, typography is the second step of a web or graphic design project, after brainstorming. I always aim to make the typography and layout do as much of the heavy lifting as possible before I start adding color or anything else that isn’t absolutely crucial. And that’s where I am now. It’s a bit of a background project at the moment, but since I look at typography the way other people look at cat pictures, it’s been on my mind.

Does this show some typefaces I’m looking at for a redesign, or a total switch to a website that hides secret codes in Latin placeholder text?

You only get three typefaces per project. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. It’s the “Show don’t tell” of graphic design. Like any common and seemingly wise platitude, you can find a number of places where people break the rule, for good reasons and bad. I won’t be breaking the rule in the redesign because the rule will serve my purposes.

My three typefaces can say any number of things, on their own or in combination, by their sizes, spacing, positioning, coloring, bolding, italicizing, proselytizing, and jazzercising. Will they convey a mood that is academic, provocative, sarcastic, persuasive, informative, intellectual, surreal, silly, serious, dark, weird, perfectionist, or diy-to-a-fault?

Furthermore, am I correct in thinking I’m the things I think I am? And even if I am those things, do I want to express them in an on-the-nose sort of way, or do I want to put a twist on them? And in any case, how many of these things can even be expressed through typography?

And that’s the story of how typography can pave the path right into an existential swamp of anxiety.

Fortune Cookie Throw Down: Episode One and Only?

Why Fortune Cookie Throw Down? Because instead of reading my fortune, saying to myself, “Self, this is absolute nonsense,” and then throwing out my fortune like a normal person would, I keep all my fortunes. I find them in the pockets of my work shirts, in my computer bag, and in crevices of my apartment that I clean out maybe every two years. They’re scattered about the top of my bureau like dead leaves.

And yet, I still can’t throw them out. I put them to the side when I’m cleaning. I collect them in tiny boxes and bowls, which I then forget about. I’ve been decluttering since before decluttering was cool, but even that does nothing because they’re so small they escape into crevices like papery little centipedes. My entire apartment is infested with mystical fortune cookie nonsense.

But a few years ago, this looked like it might change. Back in the early days of this blog, I had tons of ideas for features and series of posts. Most of them involved me going out of my way to do eccentric activities, and then write about them. Thus, like a twisted emperor of meaningless scraps of paper, I decided that my fortune cookie fortunes must prove their worth through combat. Pitted against one another on this very blog, they would win based on wisdom, humor, uncanny accuracy, or my fickle whims of the day.

Somehow, this made more sense to me than throwing them out in a cold-blooded sweep.

I initially started fortune cookie throw down in my art journal. Which looks about the way you’d expect the art journal of someone who can’t throw out a fortune cookie and used to collect My Little Ponies to look.

Fortune One vs Fortune Two

“Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it’s enough.”

The first fortune is pithy advice with a sensible caveat. Actually, I like this one. I don’t believe that intuition, or gut feelings, are some mystical, magical thing, or that intuition needs to be opposed to logic. Rather, I think that intuition is basically an impression you get from things you’ve noticed, but not necessarily verbalized. But no, it’s not enough, because one bad thing can color an impression if you’re not willing to think about it logically. I live by this.

“What makes an apple fall to the ground?”

The idiocy of this question can be summed up by one word: GRAVITY. Or possibly kids with sticks, or extreme over-ripeness. But it still comes back to GRAVITY, doesn’t it?

Obviously, number one is my winner.

Fortune Three vs Fortune Four

“One is not sleeping, does not mean they are awake.”

Being judgemental, New Age style. And that’s about it. It’s not profound in the way that people who believe this think it is. Also, it loses points for grammar. Although grammar isn’t the point here, I was so distracted by the mismatch between “one” and “they” that I didn’t immediately notice that the entire thing is a grammatical hot mess.

“Curiosity kills boredom. Nothing can kill curiosity.”

Except for sedatives, electric fences, and unwanted answers. And also the knowledge that if you look up your symptoms online, it will send you into a panic, which is probably far worse than some imaginary tingling in your leg that seems to go away as soon as you put on Star Trek or otherwise occupy your mind. Curiosity does kill boredom. Other things can kill curiosity, and swiftly.

Number four wins this one. Three is judgemental, but not helpful. While my response to four was glib, the fortune is still more true. I rarely get bored, and am always am trying to learn new things. Curiosity can be killed, but like a comic book villain, it never stays dead forever.

Fortune One vs Fortune Four

To recap, Fortune One is “Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it’s enough.” Fortune Four is “Curiosity kills boredom. Nothing can kill curiosity.”

As I said above, I live by Fortune One. If that hadn’t already the case, Fortune One might have been good advice for me. Number Four has been brought down by its second sentence, and by the fact that I’m a smart ass.

Fortune One advances to the next round!


While Fortune Cookie Thrown Down was kind of a weird thing I found on my hard drive and I no longer intended to turn into a series, I had fun typing this up. I enjoy poking holes in common cultural wisdom, although much of what one sees on fortune cookie fortunes doesn’t really match that description. You might have noticed in the art journal image above that I had glued down four more fortunes. At the very least, I’ll have to write about those. This may not be Episode One and Only after all.

And so…

Next time, on Fortune Cookie Throw Down…

Principles, convictions, schedules, and being wronged duke it out! Don’t miss it! Coming soon! Or at least in the future. Eventually!

Income tax, vigilantes, and other things I didn’t know about Prohibition

I assumed that renting a six-hour documentary when I have a toddler was a ridiculous act of optimism. Surely, in these tiring times, my partner and I would lack the mental energy to watch a history documentary instead of the same episodes of 30 Rock for the billionth time. Surely, if we managed to start it at all, we would manage about 45 minutes. Then we would return it to the library, making sure not to do anything to invite a conversation with the librarian about our documentary-watching failure. I had high expectations about Ken Burns’ Prohibition, but I still didn’t expect it to be so fascinating that I would be motivated to finish it well before it was due.

The surprising twist of Prohibition is that one of these items turns out to be illegal.

I learned so many interesting things about Prohibition—and especially the social conditions leading up to it–that I have found myself telling people about it all the time. I don’t know how many unspoken social conventions I’ve broken by blurting out Prohibition stories in the middle of a conversation, but here are some of the ones that have stuck with me.

Income tax is just over 100 years old.

Since I never learned otherwise, I always assumed that income tax has existed since the start of the country to satisfy government greed and also to birth the energy vampire known as TurboTax.

Nope! Well, probably a little bit. But income tax was also related to the fight to prohibit alcohol—one of the things standing in the prohibitionists’ way was the enormous amount of tax revenue generated by the alcohol industry. With income tax passed in 1916, that gave the government an extra source of income to draw from, and struck a blow to the alcohol industry.

This is part of the reason that Al Capone was taken down on charges of tax fraud. Watching the documentary, I kept wondering why he didn’t just hire an accountant, when he was clearly rich enough to hire an entire team of accountants and maybe even pay them to fight tigers or make him sandwiches out of tiger baloney. Income tax, at that time, was still not well understood, and so it ended up being a weak point for Capone.

Alcohol totally took the rap for capitalism and patriarchy.

One of the chief complaints about alcohol, especially by the 19th-century women’s groups who initially sought to make the United States a dry country, was about husbands who would drink and then come home to abuse their families. Hand-in-hand with that was the idea that the men needed to go to the saloons on a Friday night after a hard work week. Their lives in manufacturing jobs were so tough that it was their right to unwind. Sounds like patriarchy to me—with a bit of capitalism for spice.
In other words, alcohol became a scapegoat for what was actually a feminist issue, and a workers’ rights issue. Ultimately, banning alcohol couldn’t solve these problems.

Empowerment means awesome vigilante stone-throwing.

In the 1800s, there was a woman named Carry Nation, who was the head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Kansas. Alcohol had screwed over not one, but two of her marriages, and after a number of ineffectual marches, she heard the Voice of God and turned into a crazed vigilante. She was especially pissed because Kansas was supposed to already be a dry state, but it sounded like there was a saloon every couple blocks. Kind of like Dunkin Donuts in modern day New England.* The morning after hearing god, she hid a bunch of rocks in paper wrappings, then went to the nearest saloon and starting chucking the rocks at mirrors, bottles, and all the other breakables. She then went on and did this at a few more places. She was arrested so many times that we lost count while watching, but every time it was the same story: she would be released from jail, and then go grab more rocks and break saloons. This sometimes happened multiple times in a single day. Eventually, she upgraded to a hatchet.

It’s possible to be so nice you lose all sense of morality.

One of the era’s big bootleggers, George Remus**, murdered his wife after a short stint in prison during which she had an affair with a prohibition officer. This apparently occurred while he was on his way to their divorce proceedings. Remus acted as his own lawyer, and decided to play the temporary insanity defense, which was a maverick move back then. The jury declared him not guilty because they knew he’d had a rotten Christmas the previous year, and wanted him to have a better one this time around.

So even though he took a life, the jury decided to give him a break for the holidays. That’s some Christmas song material, there. It’s better than Christmas Shoes, anyway.

And the number one thing that stuck with me from Prohibition?

A handful of slippery, vague ideas about how people act and opinions form. It’s a slow process. Then, as now, people tried to solve problems by attacking convenient scapegoats instead of the root of a problem. People keep saying that we live in politically divisive times. I think that’s true, to an extent, but the way that citizens of the 19th and early 20th centuries divided into wet and dry camps looked familiar to me. Movements rise and fall on the tide of opinions and ideas. That hasn’t changed today.

That’s comforting and depressing at the same time.


*If that was the case, then clearly, law or no, Kansas could not get rid of the saloons. How would anyone give directions?

**I don’t know if he has any connection to Romulus and Remus, or if he could turn into a wolf.

Depression is a hole

Depression is a hole, and it sucks you down again and again. Sometimes subtle, sometimes slow, you wind up in a hole so vast you think it’s a landscape, and you can’t even see the shadowy watercolor of sloping walls at the edges.

Depression is a hole, and specifically, sometimes it’s the small, jarring shock of a pothole that your smooth ride crashes down into when you were driving home in the dark.

Depression is a hole, but sometimes it’s also a pit trap, and it fucking comes out of nowhere when you’re only trying to eat some cherries you saw sitting on the ground.

Depression is a hole, but sometimes it’s also a bunker, and you think it’s pretty cool with the generator-powered TV and VCR and the stacks of Digimon episodes you taped in 2002 and the excuse to eat ramen noodles all day. It’s all glory days until you realize there’s no sunlight.

Depression is a hole, and sometimes you let it dig itself when you know better, you KNOW BETTER, and you watch while a bunch of shovels gleefully fling away the dirt like wizard Mickey Mouse’s animated brooms, and you think it’s all going great because now that there’s a hole you’ll have a far-fetched idea to plant an edible forest garden with lingonberries and chives, and then you realize, “Oh shit, I can’t plant anything in this hole when I’m stuck down here.”

Depression is a hole, and you can walk your way out. You can accrue miles step by step, walking in circles and circles around the bottom, wearing a track until at some point you find a little niche big enough for your toe. And then the pressure of your toe opens the whole thing, and what was a niche is a wide off-ramp-out-ramp, and it curves away up the walls and out of the hole, and you can walk your way out.

Depression is a hole, and you can write your way out. Even though the first few words are hard and heavy, eventually you can scrawl recklessly and type in mad clacking waves, until your hundreds and thousands of words pile up one upon the other, until eventually there’s a hill of gravel. It grows and it grows and you slip and slide as you make your way up, but eventually it fills the hole and you can stride toward the ocean as it collapses into sand behind you.

Depression is a hole and you can draw your way out. You can scribble and scratch, doodle swirling, idle abstractions. Or you can take the time to observe, watch the curve of a line, your eyes flicking up and down from your subject to your paper. You can add shading and find that a bridge pops out at you. And when you let your hand go free and draw the things that aren’t realistic but maybe are needed, you find you have drawn trampolines lining the sides of the hole like mushrooms on a tree trunk, and you jump your way out like a video game character, until you pop up in a meadow, and you walk out and down a cobbled path into a town you saw once in a dream.

Depression is a hole, and you can declutter your way out because sometimes the hole is filled with moldy old furniture like 1970s yellow couches with mysterious stains on tweed fabric. And sometimes there are also old ashtrays and books with worn corners, salad spinners and coin sorters, and you can shove them into boxes, not once or twice, but repeatedly, strategically, until they form a teetering, tottering stair that you can step up precariously until you climb up over the edge and walk out across tiles that shine pearlescent if you don’t look too closely, into an empty mall where you find the fountain you threw pennies in as a child.

Depression is a hole, and you have to engineer your way out again and again, but you can.

And you have to remember that.