The catalog of ways my writing gets derailed is as large as the Oxford English Dictionary though the pages with entries for “email that must be sent” and “drawers that must be organized” are the most dog eared. Currently, I have a thumb injury caused by a knife in the dish water, and I’ve bandaged that thing up so it looks like the oversized digit of hitchhiking Sissay Hankshaw/Uma Thurman in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It has slowed my typing down considerably even though it turns out the only thing you use your thumb for when typing is the space bar.
But even before the thumb situation, I had a font-related writing derailment.
I saw a snarky T-shirt on Broadway hat said, “I bet you use Helvetica.”
I use Helvetica.
I’ve been using Helvetica since 1994 when I got my Mac Performa and determined Helvetica the best font of the six or so on offer back then. Clean lines. Easy to read. Classic. Once I settle on a “good thing” I usually don’t revisit it, but that T-shirt unnerved me.
You have no idea how much time I can spend googling things like Why does Helvetica suck? Or what are the best fonts?
I find myself at a crossroads in my life wherein I must either change so I don’t seem quite as old as I’m beginning to look, or I must commit to my idiosyncrasies and admit that I no longer care to be current. Not that I’ve ever been on the cutting edge of anything, but my goal, in as much as I have one, is simple: avoid being a laughingstock if possible.
It may be a battle I’m destined to lose regardless of my age. I’ve always been out of step, and now is no different than any of the other decades of my life. I was a fussy, prim teenager who was incapable of being carefree or rebellious, and now that I’m middle aged, I’m behaving the way I should have when I was 17. While the style mags all indicate I should embrace re-purposed furniture from a thrift store and add some spikey plants, a see-thru chair, and a bookshelf full of globes (where the books should go), I hanker for the ambiance of some television small town judge’s family room circa 1955. Heirloom furniture and deep armchairs with actual arms. I’m no fashionista, so though my drawers are stuffed to the brim, I basically wear the same uniform every day—a cable-knit hoody sweater, Levi’s, and a pair of UGGs with hide laces that look like something Daniel Boone might have worn. (If it is warm out, I wear as little as possible accompanied by a snarl.) There is nothing about my “look” that is cultivated. It’s comfortable and serviceable and, hopefully, non-descript. Best of all, when I’m wearing it, I feel like myself.
Which is how I’ve always felt about Helvetica.
If I were a more confident person, I probably would have rolled my eyes at the judgey anti-Helvetica T-shirt disrespecting my font and moved on, but I’m not confident. I almost always assume that there are cool kids at a lunchroom table somewhere in the universe who are deciding right now that 90% of what I have and do is all wrong. Why these imaginary brats hold sway in my head is a question I can’t answer.
Plus, I started thinking about the judgments I’ve made against people for their font choice or their tendency to trends. Typewriter fonts are too precious and those peek-a-boo shoulder shirts aren’t really working for anybody and make me worry about shoulder melanoma. (Also, I’ll confess that though a hundred different style guides tell me that Chuck Taylors are always a good choice, I never see them on adult, non-basketball-playing humans over 22 without thinking they should try a boat shoe instead. We all have our opinions.)
Maybe I’m only thinking about things like “classic” and “style” because for Christmas, Mom got me this gorgeous little book, Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out by Kate Schelter. I’m probably not the target reader (see above description about my fashion choices), but I love the watercolor sketches of the things Schelter and a few style icons she’s interviewed offer up as their classic go-tos. It’s got me thinking about that old William Morris adage “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and now I’m looking at the stuff in my closet and dotted around our apartment and finding some of it dubious.
For instance, I’ve been giving Beyonce, the metal chicken that sits in our living room (and who is named after The Bloggess’s significantly larger metal rooster) the side-eye. She’s not really beautiful. We knock her off her perch regularly and she dents up the wooden hand-made Shaker nesting boxes she sits on. On the other hand, we got her as a companion to the metal rooster, Bob Johnson, who sits on the other side of the room and I do find him, if not beautiful, then at least aesthetically pleasing, and he makes me smile, thus covering the “usefulness” category as well. Somehow, it seems wrong to deprive Bob and Beyonce of their love just because she’s less attractive and I got her on markdown in the Meijer garden department. Bob was liberated from a gallery and thus was a more pricey, graduation gift from Z that we found in New Mexico. She can’t help it that she doesn’t have the breeding of Bob, and I admire him for overlooking this.
There are other things on the side-eye list too.
I’m not sure why I’ve been collecting these little Wade ceramic doo-dads out of Z’s tea boxes. I don’t really like the colors and it seems kind of weird to have a tiny space shuttle, old-timey scuba helmet, White House, and pine tree/arrowhead sitting in my windowsill, but each time he opens a new box of tea it reminds me of the childhood joy of getting a prize in a box of Fruit Loops. So there they are, looking down on 9th Avenue in all their tiny, muted glory as if they are prized possessions.
I don’t know what to do with the 28 tote bags I have. They’re useful, but will I ever have need for 28 at one time? Shouldn’t I thin the herd? Thumbs up to the Winter is Coming direwolf and Andy Warhol soup can totes and thumbs down to the free London Review of Books one I got at a conference?
I keep thinking I’ll come up with a system for these wooden file boxes that will make them useful, but instead, I throw things in them like the notecards of a would-be screenplay that seemed like a good idea one night at midnight and less of a good idea once the sun was up. They’ve been in one file box for ten years and I’ve never looked at them. Mostly I dust the boxes when guests come and thus they serve as tiny coffins for story ideas that have never re-animated.
I could go on like this, but you get the idea. That once again, instead of doing the business of writing, I’m avoiding it by bandaging my thumb and worrying about fonts, and speculating about how classic or unclassic my “style” is. Because that’s what really matters in my life. Sure it is. (Well, wound care matters, I guess, in that if I lose my thumb to gangrene, all of my words will run together what with no digit to operate the space bar.)
Classic Style has sent me down a memory lane I wasn’t planning to traverse too. I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was an impressionable 13 year old, I got my hands on a copy of Lisa Birnbaum’s satirical Preppy Handbook and didn’t realize it was satire. Instead, I used it as a bible. I wanted to be preppy. I don’t mean I wanted to wear Izods with the collars up. I mean I desperately wanted my family to transform over night into one of those country-club-belonging east coast families that went sailing and attended Ivy League schools and summered on Nantucket. It wasn’t the money I cared about, but I cared about the class, the breeding, the well-readness and the well-educatedness. Since I couldn’t rearrange my Midwestern reality into that, I read the books Birnbaum said were non-negotiable for preps (Love Story, Catcher in the Rye, The World According to Garp), I fretted about whether my monogram should feature the “E” of my given name or the “B” of my everyday “Beth.” Somehow, I managed to get a pair of Tretorn tennis shoes and tried to wear away the right toe as if I dragged my toe when serving a tennis ball (instead of actually, you know, learning to play tennis and getting the Preppy Handbook required roughed-up toe legitimately), and I crammed my maturing body into little boy’s polo shirts because they were cheaper than those made for women, and they fit my nearly non-existent budget even though they didn’t really fit me.
So as I read Classic Style, I find myself reverting to my 7th grade girlhood. I feel the envy and the inability to measure up to those satirical guidelines. And I’ll admit it, I’m kind of hating on Schelter—an honest to goodness prep—for forcing that on me. True, I now have my own set of required L.L. Bean Boat & Tote bags, but Kate Schelter, one assumes, has actually used hers for boating and toting instead of for storing half-read Poets & Writers magazines under her desk. You can’t buy preppyness (or class) it turns out.
But please note: Schelter’s illustrated questionnaire of the creative director, Stephen Keefe, listed Helvetica as his favorite font, alongside his vintage Persol sunglasses and Gucci loafers!
As I bundled up to meet Z and Hudge for happy hour on Monday, I was thinking about Schelter and her perfect style as I wrapped my rainbow-hued scarf around my neck, tugged on my rainbow-striped gloves, and pulled my rainbow knit cap down over my ears. These items don’t match, in case it sounds like they do. The colors are all of different hues, I just like the spectrum even though I would never have dressed this way in 1981. The useless strings that dangle from the earflaps slapped against my chin as I thought about how no one with real style would leave the house dressed as I was unless it was Pride week.
I climbed onto the #2 bus and as I was putting my wallet into my bag, the guy across from me—an Albus Dumbledore look-alike who appeared to have fallen on hard times—complimented me on my obnoxious hat.
I touched the hat and thanked him. He swayed and shifted in his seat in a way that indicated to me he was probably already half-lit. Then he leaned across the aisle and presented a banged-up blue plastic lighter and said, “Want to trade it for this lighter.”
I did not and said so politely. It seemed rude to ignore him, so I gave him more information than he needed—that Z and I got these hats—Z’s a more “manly” forest green—right before we got married and so I have a sentimental attachment to it (and therefore, nothing against the lighter he had on offer). I restrained myself from telling him that I secretly believe the hat to have magical properties because a few days after I bought it and a few days before our wedding, I face-planted on an icy sidewalk and instead of ending up with the bruise or concussion I should have had, the hat made my head bounce so I was able to get married without stage make-up.
The guy shrugged and leaned back in his seat, arm along the back as if he were driving a 1970s Cadillac. As if to say, he liked the hat, sure, but it was nothing to him if I couldn’t see the benefits of his proposed trade. He flipped his maroon and gray striped scarf over his shoulder jauntily.
My instinct then was to run down the checklist perpetually in my brain of “was it bad of me that I just did this selfish thing of wanting to keep my own belongings to myself?” (The curse of a self-aware only child is the need not to behave the way people expect you to.) I looked at the guy while he was looking out the window and was happy to see that his coat looked warm, gloves jutted out of his pocket, and his scarf was long enough to cover his head if the temperature dropped. He didn’t need my magic hat; he just liked it. And I didn’t need his lighter, which appeared to have no magical qualities at all, (though the ability to carry potential fire in your pocket is a kind of magic). Things were even enough between us that I didn’t have to spend the rest of the day feeling guilty for not being more generous.
He saw me eying his scarf and leaned forward again, rubbing the ends between his fingers, and pointing out to me that the colors are the same as those of Oxford University’s Christ Church (or Gryffindor’s, I thought). Then he mumbled some things about Oxford and it seemed to me that he said he’d studied there and maybe that’s where the scarf had actually come from, though I can’t be sure because his monologue was low and zipped from topic to topic. There were kernels of sanity and sobriety in what he said, but there were enough words I didn’t catch that I also don’t know if he was a fabulist or if he’d had some academic life that went awry.
He talked. I smiled and nodded and hoped I wasn’t agreeing to some other trade that wouldn’t suit me. I am known for agreeing to things I don’t want because I nod my head when I don’t understand someone and the next thing I know I’m having a meal I didn’t order or hideous fake nails glued to my own natural ones.
I looked at him more closely. His hair was wild. He was carrying what looked like a freshly laundered mattress pad in a see-through tote. He was picking bits of fluff of the knee of his trousers fastidiously, and he was definitely striking a pose there on the #2 as we bumped up Seneca. He flipped the scarf over his shoulder again and looked out the window as if we were on a weekend leisure drive in Oxfordshire. He might have initially looked like a homeless Dumbledore to me, but as I often discover about my fellow bus riders, there was more to him than met the eye. And the man had style.
If he has cause to use Helvetica, I bet he does it unapologetically.