Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Stories of the Road, issue 31: The Fonts of Scottsdale

The Sunday night before my first trip to Arizona, I checked the local temperature in Scottsdale at 10 PM.  It was 95 degrees.

Luckily, it's a dry heat, and yes, that makes a difference.  One of the locals told me that their heat index sometimes drops below the real temperature.  This is unheard of in Chicago, where humidity is a malevolent force and the heat index can be likened to the Terror Alert Level (except you actually give a shit about the heat index).

Arizona's insect population is more hoary and nightmarish than that of any state I've visited so far.  My coworker went househunting in the area and spotted three black widows in a single home, nearly walking face-first into a web on the way in the front door.  (An indigenous welcome mat, maybe?)  Housing divisions invade areas with high scorpion populations, but the original tenants are too stubborn to move.  Scorpions glow under black light, and many new homeowners are surprised by what turns up in a black light scan of the backyard.

After hearing stories like these, I was afraid to sit on the ground to stretch after my evening run.  I could only imagine how welcoming the open leg of my shorts looks to a scorpion.

The local flora are no more benign.  I gently touched the spines of a cool-looking cactus and my friend laughed condescendingly before describing the skin irritation and inflammation those spines can cause.  Chill out, Arizona nature!

Two weeks into this assignment, I'm starting to see why people live here: the evenings are 75 degrees and usually rainless, and locals tell me that this moderate weather sticks around all winter while snow plows patrol the streets of Chicago.  Summer precipitation comes in the form of thunderheads that rain furiously for 15 minutes but put on a spectacular lightning show as a prologue and epilogue to their visit.  The buildings are new and polished, and their low profile allows for fantastic views of extended sunsets.

The Southwestern aesthetic is ubiquitous.  Color schemes waver within the bounds of beige and red.  Most of the fonts look like they were lifted from a Chili's menu.  Sand, rocks, and intimidating cacti are the norm.


Two quick plugs:

  1. Lucy's book, French Milk, is now available for pre-order on!  The new & improved version has lots more pages and contains even more John Horstman than before.  How much more?  Buy it and see!
  2. My friend Lane made a 3-minute film for the Chicago Film Race, and because his film is rad it was picked to be one of the top 10 finalists.  Please watch it and hopefully vote for it here.  It's titled "Tomorrow."  Click on the picture of the sunrise.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Writing about writing

Hi, all.  About two weeks ago, my lungs turned into the La Brea tar pits, and I've been a wheezing bag of slime ever since.  Luckily, in between games of Super Mario Galaxy and meals of greasy breakfast foods, I've found a few interesting things to read.  Here are two pieces I'd recommend to anyone interested in dusting off the old quill and inkwell.

Through Merlin Mann's wonderful blog on, I found a short essay by Kurt Vonnegut entitled, "How to Write With Style."  The entire article is here and you can read it in 5 minutes if you don't get distracted - more difficult than it sounds while at your computer, I know - but I'll summarize it for the convenience of those short on time or up too late (like me).

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean
  7. Pity the readers

My favorite line from the piece is the last paragraph for point 5:

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

For those with lengthier attention spans, take a look at The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.  (Coincidentally, I was about halfway through this book when I read the Vonnegut essay, which recommends Elements of Style at the end.)  The advice is more mechanical & dry: omit needless words, use the active voice, keep related words together, etc.  These guidelines are linked by the book's central theme: writing should be clear and vigorous.  Strunk best expresses this idea with four words, elegantly practicing what he preaches: every word must tell.  There's also a great analogy in there about how there are no unnecessary lines in a drawing, so why should there be unnecessary words in a book; unfortunately, my copy of the book is 1,700 miles away right now (Stories of the Road returns soon!) so I can't quote it exactly.

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Lucy & I collaborated on a comic!  I wrote it based on a true story about our internet French lessons.  Guess which version is mine and which is hers.