Old habits, old junk

My current ukuleles and guitars.

Old junkThe past couple of weeks I have been trying to turn my office (one of our spare bedrooms, once upon a time) back into my office. A working space I’ll need when Susan retires this winter. My man cave, so to speak.

Over the past few years, since I sold the store and went back to home-based freelance work, I have spread my tools and toys around the house, an inexorable sprawl, rather like moss overtaking a pathway. Books litter the house, while my office became more of a walk-in storage closet. Until you could no longer walk into it and it was more like a squeeze-into space.

I’m not so much a hoarder as restlessly obsessed with learning and as a result I accumulate along the way . I simply can’t stop learning, can’t stop exploring the intellectual horizon. Which means I’m always chasing information, data, images, content. And saving it to read later. Which all too often doesn’t happen because I’ve moved on to some new subject of interest, like a magpie distracted by some shiny bauble.

The detritus of my previous efforts and explorations pile up, collecting dust. Thousands of printed pages, collected in binders or bound in Cerlox, each one a silent monument to some pursuit or learning experience I engaged in. Plus hundreds of pages on municipal agendas, reports, emails, notices, Municipal World magazines…

It was time to let go. To admit that I simply won’t go back to that place and space again. To make new space for new purposes. De-clutter. All those lovely platitudes and euphemisms.

It’s been a slow, agonizing and emotional process. Physically, it was like one of those wooden puzzles where you have just so many pieces and they have to assemble into a particular shape. The room is small – really a kid’s bedroom, not something for an adult with eclectic tastes. And I have stuff. Lots of stuff. So what to keep and what to let go takes some time and consideration.

Who knew I had so many guitars and ukuleles? Fourteen ukes, four guitars, one bass. And cases. And harmonicas. Flutes. Stands, microphones, cables, amplifiers, effects, Tibetan singing bowls… stuff I mostly want to keep. I will sell off some, but will keep many. Where will even my soon-to-be diminished collection reside?

Creating space means discarding other stuff; stuff that had – or even has – meaning to me; stuff that I gathered for a particular voyage into knowledge or experience.

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The gems of Salomé

SaloméI was perhaps 11 or 12 when I first encountered Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé. Some of it, at least.

At the time, I knew nothing of Wilde, his writing, or even much about theatre in general. After all, I was in grade seven or eight. It would be a few years before I encountered (and developed a passion for) Shakespeare and other playwrights. But Wilde I actually discovered first.

Faced with the dramatic challenges of their own – my mother was either still in hospital or had only recently been released and was struggling with the paralyzing results of her stroke – my parents allowed me to make the trip downtown to spend a day at the museum on my own. I would do that many, many times in those years. A solitary visit, a day spent in wonder and imagination.

Allowed may be a kind word. They were struggling with serious life issues, and I was, admittedly, a bit of a handful with a wayward sense of independence.

I figured out how to get to the museum, alone and by public transport, from our home in distant, suburban Scarborough to the downtown, and went off on my own, paying my way with money earned through my paper route. My parents accepted my excursions after the fact as a fait accompli, although not without stern warnings. It was not the destination, perhaps, that concerned them, but the hour-long trip by myself, negotiating buses, transfers and finally the subway.

Still, I returned every night intact, unmolested, and richer for the experience. A day in the museum was for me like a day in Oz or some other magical kingdom. The dinosaurs, the mummies, the urns, the totem poles, the stuffed animals frozen behind glass.

The words from Wilde were written in raised letters on a wall in the entrance to the mineralogy hall of the Royal Ontario Museum. It was always the second place I always visited after the invertebrate paleontology hall. I believe they are still there, today.

I copied them down into the notebook I always carried then, long since lost, but the words remained scribbled in my heart. They moved me in unexpected ways for a pre-teen, and still move me today. And I still carry notebooks to record such things, although they tend to be used for more prosaic purposes, since moments of wonder seem fewer and farther between these days.

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Type Crimes and Taxes

tax guideType crime is the term author Ellen Lupton uses in her book, Thinking With Type, to describe egregiously bad typography. That description came to mind as I perused the latest fluff mailer from our MP; the so-called “Tax Guide.” So-called because it isn’t a guide: it’s the usual, dreary Conservative whack-a-mole propaganda about how great they were when in power and how evil the Liberals are now.

In fact, if you want actual information, the publication has a final page where you have to send in to get it (or call the Canada Revenue Agency). And unless you’re an accountant, you’ll need more info because this “guide” is pretty vague at its best and has no specific information about filling in your tax form.

Dreary is right: in terms of design, layout and typography, it’s simply awful. I grade it somewhere between the abysmal colour advertising produced by the Town of Collingwood, and the even worse greyscale newsletter. It also has some grammatical errors that a real editor would have caught. *

And why is her information awkwardly centred at the bottom of the front page instead of flush right?

tax guide_03

Look at the sample above (pages 4-5). The first thing that strikes the reader is the vertical density of the type. The leading (the space between the lines) is far too tight, leading to a drabness of copy (in some paragraphs, descenders of one line touch the ascenders of the next!).

The thinness of the body typeface, too, adds to the overall greyness.

You should notice that the leading in the stacked headlines is inconsistent, too.  And why stacked? There’s plenty of room to spread them across the page. That stacking creates odd, disconnected white spaces that leave the reader’s eye bewildered where to go next. Across to the icons on the right? Down to the words below?

The vertical and horizontal lines around two sides of each section increase the sense of funereal confinement and make each section look like an obituary. And that little diamond on the left end of the horizontal fencing keeps drawing the eye to it.

The background attack-ad graphic at the upper right (“clawed-back for 2016”) impairs clarity and readability. If you look closely, you’ll see that the author used double spaces after end punctuation in sentences, not the proper single space. The paragraph indent is too narrow for the line length, too.

Clawed back doesn’t need a hyphen in either instance. But the benefits were not “clawed back” – they were reduced to former levels. The proper definition of a claw back is, “…money or benefits that are distributed and then taken back as a result of special circumstances.”

And don’t get me started on the run-on sentences, the bureaucratese language and the byzantine descriptions of how our tax system works replete in this work.

By the way, American travellers have an $800 duty-free exemption when returning, compared to Canada’s measly $200. Maybe it’s not something to crow so loudly about.

The headline font for sections appears to be Arial, the body Times New Roman (both over-used and boooooooring….) and the page heads are Agenda bold or perhaps Humanist 521. Why some words are in inverse type is beyond me, nor can I fathom the reason for the inappropriately wide space between some of the inverted words and the other words in the headline.

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The Wolf and the Dogs

Wolf in sheep's clothingOnce upon a time, there was a pack of good-hearted dogs who were known for their good deeds, and indeed their good natures. They travelled around the town unmolested, loved by everyone they met, helping with the chores, keeping the town safe from wild animals and intruders.

The humans fed and pampered them, the other animals in the town bowed to them. Their leader, a kindly, gentle dog, was loved by all.

But there were animals in the forest who grew envious of the dogs. They hated their popularity, their good deeds, their companionship with people. They wanted what the dogs had. Most of all they wanted the chickens the humans kept, the tasty chickens the animals could not get to because they were guarded by the dogs.

The wolf gathered his companions around him. The fox came, so did the rat, the snake and the weasel.

“These dogs are not acting like animals are supposed to act,” the wolf told his followers. “They are keeping us from the chickens that are rightfully ours because we are the superior animals. We must make the humans hate these dogs. We must take from them the love and respect they receive and have them banished, if we ever want to get those chickens. I have a plan. You, fox, will be the first to lead us.”

And the fox nodded eagerly and listened to the wolf’s plan.

A few days later, when they were walking around the town, a group of dogs came across the fox whose foot appeared to be in a trap. The fox was thrashing about.

“Oh help me please,” cried the fox. “I have been caught in this terrible trap. If you don’t free me, the humans will catch and kill me because I stole one of their chickens. Please help me. I don’t want to die. I am not so different from you. I will be eternally grateful and stop stealing chickens from now on if you just get me out of this trap.”

So the dogs worked hard to free the fox from the trap. After much effort, they made it open and release the fox, who ran away without a word of thanks. But the dogs didn’t mind. They were happy just to do a good deed, and they continued on.

They never realized the fox had put its own foot in the trap to fool them. They never realized that, as soon as it was freed, the fox ran immediately to a hen house where it stole some chickens.

The wolf, meanwhile, dressed up as a dog ran to the humans and accused the dog pack of releasing the fox. It said the fox had been trapped by humans because it was stealing chickens. But, the wolf said, the dogs had let it go because the fox promised to give them free chickens from its catches, if they would free it.

“I have witnesses,” said the wolf, producing the snake and the rat, both dressed as dogs, who both said what the wolf said was true. They swore the dogs had released the fox and taken chickens from it in payment.

The humans, not suspecting any treachery from those they thought were dogs, believed the wolf and the others. Dogs, they believed, who were protecting them from the renegades in the pack. They didn’t see the disguises. And because there were chickens missing, they took the word of the wolf, the snake and the rat.

They accused the real dogs of releasing the fox to harm their chickens, and also of taking their chickens as payment. You took bribes, they said to the dogs.

“But we were trying to help it,” cried the dogs. “We did no wrong. We never touched the chickens!”

The humans didn’t care, nor believe their innocence. They turned against the dogs and stopped patting them. Stopped giving them extra food. They stopped letting them wander the town as before. They kept them away from their henhouses.

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Just My Type

BemboThose long legs. Gently sloping shoulders. The swelling curves above and below. The sophisticated line of the throat. Everything to attract me, to draw my aging eye, to warm my heart. The sensual Bembo. She’s my kind of type.

Bembo is one of the great Renaissance typefaces that has since been revived. It was designed by Francesco Griffo and first used in a book of poems and essays by scholar Pietro Bembo, published by printer Aldus Manutius, in 1495. Monotype recut it for modern use in 1929, digitized it in 1990 and more recently, in 2005, redesigned it for today’s printing as Bembo Book.

Bembo Book’s designer, Robin Nicholas, says this of the typeface:

Bembo was drawn to embody the elegance and fine design features of the original but marry them with the consistency of contemporary production methods… (Bembo Book) is slightly narrower than existing digital versions of Bembo, it is a little more economical in use and gives excellent colour to continuous pages of text. Ascending lowercase letters are noticeably taller than capitals, giving an elegant, refined look to the text.

Adobe also made a Bembo typeface, but it seems to have drawn criticism from the admittedly rarefied community of type aficionados. Thomas Christensen, who writes The Typehead Chronicles, says this:

Adobe Bembo, however, has received a lot of criticism in the typophilic community for not living up to the quality of the metal version. It is said to be light and spindly and to produce a palid gray page. (Some of this criticism may be overdone.)
Some recommend Minion as an alternative, but I am not a fan of Minion. Another proposed alternative is Dante, but I think it has an entirely different feel. There are a couple of new versions of Bembo-like digital fonts that might be worth looking into. One is JY Aetna by Jack Yan. Another is the new Yale typeface by Matthew Carter, but it is only “available to Yale employees, students, and authorized contractors for use in Yale publications and communications,” a restriction that is a giant step backward.
Now, in 2005, Monotype has released a new digital version of Bembo, called Bembo Book. It is said that this version restored many of the admirable qualities of the letterpress Bembo…

Although dismissed by Christensen, Robert Bringhurst’s book, The Elements of Typographic Style, is set in Minion (with captions in Scala Sans), possibly because it doesn’t intrude into the language and the message (Bringhurst shows many typefaces in his examples). For the most part, a typeface should not be visible to the reader any more than a  window pane is to someone looking outside.

But it will be visible to a typographer or graphic artist, much like one magician knows another magician’s tricks. The trained eye will see how the text flows, how the eye is directed, how well the elements balance.

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