Archive for October, 2010

Putting the NaNoWriMo Pledge to Work

I admit that I’ve had mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo, the cult-like offshoot project celebrating National Novel Writing Month. I wrote it off as the domain of fanfiction nerds, and I felt that it prioritized fast writing over good writing. Our culture is already saturated with bad writing, thoughtless publishing, and excessive wordiness, and I’m not sure if we should be encouraging people to add to that.

On the other hand, it’s a program that gets people writing, which is undeniably a Good Thing.

The goal is to write a 175 page (50,000 word) novel by midnight on November 30. NaNoWriMo defends the “kamikaze” approach where the only thing that matters is that you reach the finish line:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

(from the website)

I respect this approach: many writers are so intimidated by the vision of a finished, perfect work that they just flail around, stunted, during the writing process. NaNoWriMo’s approach says: set aside your dreams of book jacket designs and New York Times reviews. Just write.

Aspiring writers also have trouble grasping the concept of “work ethic” when it comes to writing. Like any other job, a writer must sit down at a desk and produce words on a page, even when the Muse is MIA.

So that’s how I’ll be using the NaNoWriMo challenge this November: to sit down and get working on some projects I’ve had on my Big Career To Do list. I don’t expect to finish by November 30, but I do expect to have a draft sitting on my desk, and to be finally in the momentum of the project.

Autumn Ink Reviews


Me in leaves, long long ago...

I’ll tell you one thing that  I miss about the east coast: a real Autumn. Colorado definitely has a “transitional period” of some kind, but it’s kind of spazzy, weather-wise. Although I’m missing the golds and reds and oranges of home, the one highlight in Colorado is the bright yellow wash of Aspens in Fall.

I embraced the season instead by ordering some autumn ink samples from Pear Tree Pens. (A good excuse, right?) I can honestly say that I’ve never ordered anything from Pear Tree Pens except for their ink samples– they should play it up more. Like: I wish I could get larger-sized samples. Sometimes it’s difficult to suck anything up out of those tiny jars, especially with a larger nib.

I also wish I could get samples of the forebodingly-priced Iroshizuku inks… anybody want to split a bottle with me?

Noodler's Cayenne, Noodler's Habanero, Noodler's Apache Sunset, Rohrer & Klingner Goldgrun (with J. Herbin's Vert Olive for comparison), Noodler's Zhivago, Noodler's Burma Road Brown (V-mail series), and Rohrer & Klingner Solferino

Above, the samples are tested with two dip pens (an italic and a flex), which isn’t going to match how they’ll look in a regular fountain pen. I also got a sample of Noodler’s Bulletproof Black which is not shown above, and Vert Olive is there only for comparison.

Here’s the overview

Noodler’s Bulletproof Black. Tested in TWSBI Diamond, F nib. I’m pretty devoted to Aurora Black, but I needed a waterproof black ink and this one seems to be the standard. I can see more shading than with other black inks, but I also noticed that it’s the only ink that doesn’t feather on regular paper. I’ve used it in the office Moleskines and in my new leather-covered sketchbook with absorbent art paper, with no feathering or bleedthrough. Haven’t tested the waterproof-ness yet, so I’m planning a full review later.

Rohrer & Klingner Goldgrun. Tested in Pelikan M400, F flexible nib. I don’t know if I can say much about its behavior, because my Pelikan’s flex nib is very wet writer, which throws off the test. The color is a perfect match to the White tortoise exterior, though…

Goldgrun (top) compared to Vert Olive (bottom)

Goldgrun is much more subtle and muted than J. Herbin’s Vert Olive, which appears almost lime in comparison.

Noodler’s Apache Sunset. Tested in a Parker 45, M stub nib and Parker Vector, F nib. Ah yes, one of many ethnically-named inks which rely on our cultural stereotypes of color-associations. Juuuust sayin’. Nonetheless, word on the street is that Apache Sunset has some of the best shading around. Which is why I tested it in two pens, though I still think I’m not really highlighting its shading capacities. I wish I had a Pilot Parallel…

Drastic shading, Noodler's Apache Sunset

But you can still see the variation even in these two pens: the Vector, which is a much dryer writer, and the Parker 45 stub nib.

Noodler’s Habanero. Tested in Aurora Ipsilon, F nib. I’ve actually tried this ink before; I just wanted to compare it to Cayenne and Apache Sunset. It’s a beautiful bright orange with good wet flow and is more opaque than other oranges, like Herbin’s Orange Indien. It has excellent shading, although it’s hard to see in my Aurora’s fine nib.

Noodler’s Cayenne. For whatever reason I didn’t fill up a pen with this color! So, um, raincheck?

Noodler’s Zhivago. Tested in Lamy 2000, F nib, and Pilot 78G, B italic nib. A lot of people complained that you can barely distinguish Zhivago from plain old black, and  this is generally true for fine nibs. In my Lamy 2000 F nib, the subtle variations in shading can only be seen close up (I’m interested to try it in a dry writing fine nib, though; because the wet-writing Lamy 2000 makes many inks appear darker). However, this well-flowing ink is pretty damn smashing in my Pilot’s B italic nib. It’s like a black, but a black with character. Click on the image below to view the shading full-size. And I love  beautiful subdued colors like this one: a mossy green almost-black.

Zhivago, compared in two pens

Beautiful Neutral: Zhivago and Burma Road Brown. Notice the crazy feathering on Burma Road Brown!

 

Noodler’s Burma Road Brown (V-mail series). Tested in Lamy Safari, EF nib. Another lively neutral color, Burma Road Brown is a dark sandy brown, like very faded letter. With regards to ink behavior, my first impression was that, hey, this ink is, um, really different from other inks. The first clue: it actually bled through Clairefontaine paper. (Wha..?) So then I tried it on regular crappy paper, and… zero bleedthrough. And zero feathering. Even in a Moleskine. (Wha…?) …Okay, there was bleedthrough in the Moleskine. But no feathering! Which is a pretty huge accomplishment. Like Bulletproof Black, I’m going to follow this up with a full review.

Rohrer & Klingner Solferino. Tested in a Lamy Al-Star, 1.1 italic nib. And thus we move from subtle neutrals to, um, blinding neon purple. Granted, Solferino becomes slightly less vivid after it dries, but only slightly. But I’m pretty fond of this color already: it’s great for calling attention to things in my planner, and it matches Daniel Smith’s Quinacridone Violet, which I think is pretty cool.

 

Rurality Online

Rural Recommendations

Browse: Farmgirl Fare blog has friggin’ cute baby donkeys, seriously delicious recipes, and beautiful quilts. To put it simply, this blog is good therapy after a long day of work.

Read: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, is a rare example of a novel that confronts politics, money, and the environment without being, um, badly written. Which is quite a feat, given that environmental novelists like Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver (as much as I enjoy them) quite often become preachy and one-sided. Refreshingly, Franzen has created some of the most complex and engaging characters I’ve read in a long time. (And the book still manages to be a damn good exploration of the complicated political side to environmentalism)

In other news…

My alma mater, Kenyon College, just received a grant for a three-year project called Rural by Design, which focuses on a cutting-edge holistic approach rural sustainability. Over the past century, urban design has become accepted as a legitimate profession or pursuit, but this grant hopes to put rural design on the same page.

Speaking of rural design, check out these creepy aerial images of disconnected sprawl.

Grist posted this super-interesting article about the “war” between cities and suburbs— which might as well be titled “a real-life enactment of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom”. Unfortunately, this so-called war between cities and suburbs is not about the benefits and drawbacks to each structure of living and communing, but rather about structural sustainability versus the infringement on personal liberty. You might notice that there’s a third party missing from this debate: rural populations.

Obama talks rural communities and energy challenges. I don’t have nearly the leisure time to blog about the question of energy in the United States (aside from the occasional rant about the coal industry), but extraction of natural resources should always be in mind when thinking about rural areas.

…speaking of which, the coal industry is setting its sights on Illinois now that Appalachia is nearly used up and fucked over. Is anyone else reminded of that sleazy guy in college who was clearly dealing with his own insecurities by sleeping with one girl after another?

On the plus side, there’s finally going to be a study released about the links between mining and cancer! Except–oh, wait– we’ll only see it after it’s been reviewed by a mining industry group. Biased much?

Meanwhile, a new study looks at the different lifestyles that young urban people want— and while cushy, it also sounds pretty sustainable…

Hooray, my mountains! The Blue Ridge Mountains preserve 58,000 acres

Farming

Natasha Bowens offers a solid critique of the white majority in sustainable agriculture.

In Ireland, recession is returning the economy back to its rural roots. More evidence to support my quiet hypothesis that underneath the fluctuations of money, rural living is the natural state of communities.

A Kentucky county finds that the Farm-to-School movement isn’t as simple as it should be. Having worked with local food programs at my own college, I know that these projects are so exciting in those early idealistic stages, but are less easy to actually execute.

Native American Indian farmers have settled with the Obama administration after years of discrimination from the USDA.

Digital v. Analog

USA Today discusses the role that e-books have played in renewing people’s love of reading

…while the New York Times interviews college students about the same debate between e-books and hard copies.

Branding, and Its Problems

I’m in the middle of “rebranding” my online presence– I finally got tired of that damn smirky face always staring at me from the corner of my screen. Unfortunately, the last time I could take a skillful self-portrait was during an egotistical high school phase. So, for the present, you’ll see my ripped jeans hangin’ around the internet.

Also, I got a Twitter account. Frankly, I have no clue to use Twitter (sometimes I even say “twittering” instead of “tweeting” at the office, which is horribly embarrassing, mostly for everyone else), so I’ve been dorking out for the past two days and watching all kinds of free tutorials online. Look at me! Adapting!

But, okay, aside from my discomfort with fragmented Twitter communities and my distain for ultra-hip corporate PR advice,  my real problem with “branding” is, well, etymological. It refers to the process of burning one’s slaves and animals to mark them as your own. And although the method has changed, the motive has not: a good brand can be recognized anywhere. Which, funnily enough, was precisely what helped slaveowners to track down their runaway slaves.

Ricë Freeman-Zachery, the blogger behind Notes from the Voodoo Cafe (who also happens to be visually striking enough to not really need any “branding”), has a damn good rant about this whole concept of online branding, and what it means for the blurry line between internet and real life.

As for me, I’m happy enough to talk about “online presence” instead of “branding.” Although, my biggest client at the office is beginning a major rebranding and new product launch in a few months, so it’s pretty hard to avoid using the word. Sigh…

What To Say About Stress

Well, it’s certainly the cause of my sparse posting lately. Sometimes, when your calendar/planner begins to look like mine does (below), it’s just not a good idea to spent two hours on a thoughtful blog post.

Radiolab produced an early episode on Stress (listen to the podcast here). In it, they discuss the evolutionary rationale for stress, which is basically: stress is the body’s biological response to being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger.

And that response ain’t minor: your body shuts down all non-necessary functions including ovulation, digestion (this is why you get a dry mouth when you get nervous, because you’ve stopped producing saliva for digestion), even growth itself.

Except– we don’t really have to escape saber-toothed tigers anymore. Instead, we have Important Deadlines and College Loans and Computer Viruses. Even before adulthood, we have to face Mean Bullies and Peer Pressure and First Kisses. The problem is that our body perceives First Kisses as the stress-equivalent to Sabre-Tooth Tigers. Which it’s not, unless you had a really bad first kiss experience.

But while a tiger is only a temporary threat (whether you escape or get eaten is only a matter of a few hours), deadlines and paying bills are perpetual, and this means your body is put into a stressful state far more often than it should be. This is why we end up today with stress diseases, which range from anxiety attacks, alcoholism, and high blood pressure, to heart disease and ulcers.

Based on this, you might think that the most stressed-out people are high-powered CEO’s, stock brokers, or politicians. But again and again, studies show that the population most affected by stress is poor people.
Frankly, the problems that come with being poor are closer to a sabre-tooth tiger: paying rent and putting food on the table are issues of survival. But the real reason why poor people are more prone to stress and stress diseases is that they can’t buy the therapy, massages, medications or vacations that CEO’s can.

And we wonder why all homeless people seem to be crazy. The relationship between homelessness and mental disorders is like trying to figure out the chicken or the egg.

Being poor will stress you out, but…

…so will being Black: it turns out that there’s a significant racial disparity in stress and stress-related diseases. Before you object, this isn’t just poor Black people who are stressed out. Wealthy, successful Black people are also far more affected by stress diseases than wealthy, successful White people.

In fact, there’s a significant gap in the overall health of Black and White Americans, not just in stress diseases. There’s this academic term called allostatic load, which refers to the way that social and psychological stressors build up over time and take a physical toll on the body. In the United States, this means people of color (of all economic classes) are more prone to disease and injury, and are less healthy overall than white people. Which is, I think, pretty good evidence that racism and racial discrimination is still alive and well in America.

Kinda stresses you out just to think about it, huh?

Thinking about this sort of thing did stress me out for a long time. But now, I welcome a stress that involves real thought about a real problem. Most deadlines and loans are sort of egotistical stressors: they’re issues of a privileged life, not of survival. And it’s always good stress therapy to step outside of yourself.

Coming Soon

My First Aurora Fountain Pen
Women at Work
How might Rural Design Differ from Urban Design?
A Gutsy Criticism of Breast Cancer Awareness Month
And, as always, More Watercolors

* N.B. Unfortunately, I can’t link to any of my sources because they’re in academic databases, but most of the data comes from academic and industry journals such as American Journal of Public Health and others.

Custom Office Moleskines

My office is a very Do-It-Yourself kind of place: we make breakfast bars in the Big Fancy Kitchen (BFK), test potential clients’ food products in the conference room, and hike mountains on our staff retreat. And when the Boss wants to make a retreat goodie bag for every employee, we interns get down with our crafty selves.

So that’s how I ended up cutting and pasting through a set of 10 large ruled Moleskine notebooks …despite my general aversion to Moleskine notebooks. Our retreat focus this year was “ReFresh” –note the clever use of company name! –and, as always, green dominates our color scheme.

Note to those interested in attempting a similar project: if you have a laser printer that uses toner oil, Lasertran is a pretty sweet method for transferring images onto the cover. However, if your office has a shiny new laser printer, chances are that it does not use toner oil and you will have wasted $30 on a pack of transfer paper. Not that I’m speaking from experience.

The Game of Giving Gifts

A watercolor I painted as a present

Gift-giving has always had a political element to it. Tribal groups typically exchanged gifts in order to keep good relations, build new alliances, or repair tensions; from the Middle Ages through the Reformation and the Victorian Age, elements of charity and philanthropy evolved into various forms– but they were always based on the foundation of the Gift.

Today I might argue that gift giving has become less political, but no less strategic. In a globalized free market, our primary form of exchange is monetary, and certainly that economic element infuses our gift-giving: last year we spent $446.8 billion dollars on retail gifts alone during the holiday season.

But real strategy of the gift game plays out on an individual level:

  • How well do I know this person? (How personal should this gift be?)
  • What kind of a relationship do we have? (How much time or money should I spend preparing or buying this gift?)
  • What is this person’s personality? (What the hell should I actually give?)

The political element hasn’t disappeared from gift-giving, though– especially when women complain how hard it is to buy presents for men. Or when men feel frustrated because they don’t know how to shop for women (or how to shop at all). Marketing and sales industries are primarily aimed at women; women are taught how and when to spend money from a very young age. Men, on the other hand, are given a small range of typical gifts for women they care about: flowers, jewelry, candy. It kindof limits their creativity, don’t it.

I’m feeling the strategy of gift-giving these days. All of the birthdays in my family but one fall within the October to December range (not to mention that whole Holiday Season thing…).

I recently made the painting at the top as a gift for one of my co-workers (a cheaper alternative than pitching in for a gift certificate). But now I’m questioning my strategy: is it appropriate; will she like it; is it her style…

I’ve also never done a still life before– I tried a lot of new techniques with this piece. A word of advice to artists: it’s REALLY FRIGGIN’ RISKY to experiment with a new technique when you’re planning to give away the painting as a gift.


Art adventures, literary hangovers, rural politics and other songs worth sharing.

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