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Time to Recalibrate

Tired of all the coronavirus talk? The media’s pendulum-like swinging from despair to hope and back again; the constant barrage of conspiracy mongering on social media; the numbers that keep going up…and up…and up?

Yeah. Me too.

Do yourself a favor this weekend: Forget about social distancing, self-quarantining, and the cratering economy and read this amazing story. That’s all I’ve got for you. But it’s enough.

Just Trying to Be Helpful

Sure, things are bad. But they could always be worse, right? Like, say, the Black Death of 1347–50:

Everyone ran in panic from the sick. Neighbors shunned neighbors, relatives relatives. Children abandoned elderly parents and priests their flocks. Incredibly, “even fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them.” Some reacted by locking themselves up with a few friends in some comfortable place stocked with food and fine wines. They would entertain themselves with music and refuse to receive any news of the dead. Others, often those without the means to escape, became fatalistic and began looting the houses of the dead, stuffing themselves with food and drink, heedless of the risks of infection.

We’re not there. Yet. Plus, adorable goats! And Patrick Stewart reading Shakespeare sonnets! So yeah. It could be a lot worse.

The Creative Life

Here’s more evidence for the theory that messiness and creativity are somehow connected: W. H. Auden was apparently a disgusting pig. “The speed with which he could wreck a room,” said his friend James Stern, “was barely credible, certainly dangerous.” Another friend, Charles Miller, reported on Auden’s New York apartment after a visit (“Wystan” was Auden’s first name):

The coffee table bore its household harvest of books, periodicals, half-emptied coffee cups scummed over with cream, a dash of cigarette ashes for good measure, and a heel of French bread (too tough for Wystan’s new dentures?). An oval platter served as ashtray, heaped with a homey Vesuvius of cigarette butts, ashes, bits of cellophane from discarded packs, a few martini-soaked olive pits, and a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano. This Auden-scape reeked of stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit, Wystanified tenement tang.

Counterpoint: While my workspace at helveticka world headquarters is—compared to everyone else’s anyway—practically antiseptic, if it weren’t for my long-suffering wife, I would, in fact, be quite content to live in a steaming pile of my own filth. The first is a function of my need to work without distraction; the second is simple laziness.

So perhaps the purported link between creativity and clutter is more tenuous than we’d like to admit.


A few articles to take your mind off the insanity:

Allison Meier traces “the American cemetery from the colonial age to the Gilded Age.”

On Saint Seraphim, patron saint of Russian nukes.

“As innocent as good people may appear to be,” writes Paul A. Cantor, “if they were not somehow open to the influence of evil, they could not be possessed by it.”

How’s this for an opening?

On a freezing December day in 1386, at an old priory in Paris that today is a museum of science and technology—a temple of human reason—an eager crowd of thousands gathered to watch two knights fight a duel to the death with lance and sword and dagger. A beautiful young noblewoman, dressed all in black and exposed to the crowd’s stares, anxiously awaited the outcome. The trial by combat would decide whether she had told the truth—and thus whether she would live or die.

Or this:

We were called hip-pocketers, because we lived from one deal to the next: Your business could fit in the wallet in your pocket. You bought a used Rolex at a pawnshop for a thousand bucks from the kid who’s just paid five hundred for it, hurried it over to your watch guy to hit it on the wheel and make it look new, replaced the old worn buckle with a South American counterfeit for fifty bucks, and resold it to your friend who owned the jewelry store a few blocks over for twenty-two hundred, twenty-two seventy-five if she wanted a counterfeit leather box. She could retail it the same day for thirty-five hundred. We “worked the float” back then, in the ’80s and ’90s—that meant the few days you had between when you paid for something with a check and the check actually hit your bank account. If you flipped the gold you’d bought with a check the same day, you had a few days of free money. Of course, you tried to make money on every deal, but often you were moving so fast that you had to lose money here and there, waiting for the bigger score that ought to come if you just kept hustling fast enough.

Not to add to the general level of misery, but did you know that “in a nation where nearly 113,000 people are waiting for transplants, scores of organs—mostly kidneys—are discarded after they don’t reach their destination in time”?

There. That ought to keep you busy for a while.

Might as Well Enjoy Yourselves

Not to make light of a serious situation, but I’m noticing that most people don’t seem to know what to do with themselves during a pandemic. Now, all things being equal, I actual prefer social distancing—Washington’s stay-at-home order is basically my default mode—so may I offer a couple of suggestions to see you through the next few weeks?

Dig in to a good, long, classic book. Something like Moby-Dick or Middlemarch or War and Peace. You can’t say you don’t have the time. Heck, you might even like it.

Binge-watch something that makes our current situation look downright festive and gay. Like, say, Mr. Robot. TV not your bag? Try a film or two from George Romero’s oeuvre. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead is my personal fave. Or, for a more modern take on the zombie genre, it’s tough to beat 28 Days Later.

Whatever you do, moderate your news consumption and, for the love of God, lay off the social media. (Now that I think about it, that’s just good, solid advice regardless.)

Good for What Ails You

I’ve posted this recipe before, but, honestly, this is precisely the sort of medicine we all need right now:

Trinidad Sour

1 oz. Angostura Bitters
1 oz. orgeat
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. Rittenhouse Rye

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe.

“Medicine”? Damn right. Angostura Bitters was invented by a doctor, so obviously it’s good for you. Stay home, wash your hands, and drink up. It’ll all be over soon.

Walk the Line

“When we give ourselves over to the art of walking,” writes John Kaag over at Aeon, “we exist in the moment for no reason or purpose other than that of the experience alone, for the appreciation and apprehension of beauty. There is no purpose in this occurrence, only the immeasurable effect it has on our nerves, our body, our being. Woe the society that sees little or no value in this.”

He’s right. I’ve been walking for a long time—it’s my usual lunchtime activity—and, for almost as long, I’ve occupied myself during those walks with a podcast or two, figuring that I might as well be learning something at the same time. The thing is, though, walking is good not only for your legs and your lungs; it’s also great for your mind—provided you’re not filling it with yet more information. Try it without the earbuds. Greet passersby. Listen to the birds.

It’s amazing what this small act of rebellion can do for your mental health.

An Antidote

These are troubling times. Disconcerting, unsettling, trying—not to mention downright weird—times. So I offer a little something to take your mind off the news: a couple albums that dropped today.

The first, Mixing Colours by Roger Eno and Brian Eno, is some of the most achingly beautiful music I’ve heard in a very long time. The second is by afro-futurists Onipa: We No Be Machine. It sounds almost blasphemous to say it right now, but it’s downright fun to listen to.

That’s all. Just a reminder that, no matter what, there’s still beauty and joy in this world. Stay safe and take care of each other.

Worth a Read

“After fifty years, billions of dollars of intensive marketing campaigns, and tens of billions of dollars of profits for pharmaceutical companies,” writes George Scialabba, “it is still far from clear that antidepressant drugs are any more effective than placebo. The only group of people who have demonstrably benefited from the widespread use of antidepressants are pharmaceutical executives and investors.”

There’s more—much more—in Scialabba’s forthcoming How to Be Depressed, excerpted in the current issue of n+1 magazine.

Monday Miscellany

“With [McCoy Tyner’s] death,” writes Andrew L. Shea, “we’ve lost our last living link to perhaps the greatest jazz quartet ever, but more importantly, we’re stripped of an individual and searching voice.” The missus and I happened to catch one of Tyner’s sets while on our honeymoon nearly 30 years ago.

Speaking of the passing of personal heroes, Brewmeister Smith shuffled off this mortal coil yesterday.

Pssst: “Although most people would define authenticity as acting in accordance with your idiosyncratic set of values and qualities, research has shown that people feel most authentic when they conform to a particular set of socially approved qualities.”

$9,992 is what an in-state student will pay for tuition and fees to attend Purdue next year. Which is what it cost in 2013.


The great David Gilmour turns 74 today. There are few rock guitarists with such an immediately recognizable sound—or, for that matter, who possess such a lyrical sensibility—and few artists who contributed so much to my understanding of what popular music could achieve.

To celebrate, may I suggest a handful of representative albums? Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979) are the obvious choices, I suppose—particularly the latter, if only for Gilmour’s solo on “Comfortably Numb”—though Meddle (1971), Wish You Were Here (1975), and Animals (1977), are my personal favorites; his first two solo projects, David Gilmour (1978) and About Face (1984), demonstrate more of a pop/rock side to his writing and playing; and his collaboration with The Orb, Metallic Spheres (2010), is a revelation.

Feel free to play them in whatever order seems right and good.

Stop! Grammar Time!

About a block from helveticka world headquarters there’s a business that offers “Spokanes only 15 minute workout.” A missing apostrophe, I thought to myself. Where could it have gone to?

Only as far as the shop across the street, it turns out—on a notice in the window that says they’re now “open on Sunday’s.”

I briefly entertained the possibility of returning the stray punctuation to its rightful owner, but thought better of it. There are already enough weirdos in the neighborhood.

In the meantime, repeat after me: Apostrophes don’t make nouns plural! (Unless we’re talking about, say, the plural form of lowercase letters. But that’s something else entirely.) Also, while we’re at it, if it’s possessive, add an apostrophe + s, e.g. Spokane’s only 15-minute workout.

Or, you know, if you don’t know the rules, maybe just refrain from making signs.

Word of the Day

bricoleur (noun; French) one who creates without the aid of a plan or strategy

“Aaron’s such a brilliant writer, I’ll bet his outlines are insane!”

“Dude. Haven’t you heard? He’s a bricoleur. His process is empirical; organic. You can’t achieve that level of artistry through design.”

Monday Curmudgeonry

The definition of the word privilege, like that of racism, has lately been stretched so far as to have lost all meaning. So you can imagine how I felt when I read the following:

The thing I’m most sure I had though, that was a direct result of my extraordinary privilege, is the blindness with which I bounded toward this profession, the not knowing, because I had never felt, until I was a grownup, the very real and bone-deep fear of not knowing how you’ll live from month to month.

That’s Lynn Steger Strong writing in the Guardian about how “you can only be a writer if you can afford it.”

But it wasn’t the obligatory use of the p-word that raised an eyebrow. No, it was the terrible writing. And if you think a fifty-six-word sentence with six commas is bad, it does, in fact, get worse:

I did not know what this writer, who I thought was single, paid in rent, or all the other ways that they might have been able to cut corners, that I, a mother of two, could not cut, but even then, it felt impossible to me that this writer was sustaining themselves in any legitimate way without some outside help.

One sentence, sixty words, eight commas, zero rhythm. And it’s all made even more confusing by the almost aggressive use of they as a singular pronoun. Here’s another example, just for fun:

For my students, for all the people I see out there, trying to break in or through and watching, envious, I want to attach to these statements and these Instagram posts, a caveat that says the writing isn’t what is keeping this person safe and clothed and fed.

Do you have any idea what she’s saying? I sure as hell don’t.

Look, it’s not the length of the sentence that bothers me.(I’ve written about this before.) It’s not the inordinate number of commas, either. It’s not even the random shifts from one subject to another. It’s the dearth of any sort of musicality in her writing. Like the person who claps on one and three, Lynn Steger Strong has no inherent sense of pitch and rhythm.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because she’s right: If someone is making money writing like this, privilege can be the only possible explanation.

Today in History

Big day today.

On February 28, 1943, eleven Norwegian soldiers took out the Vemork chemical plant, putting German nuclear scientists months behind—and allowing the U.S. to overtake the Nazis—in their quest to build an atomic bomb.

And this day in 1970 saw the American release of Van Morrison’s Moondance. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time, so you should definitely know about it if you expect to stay friends.

Oh, also, this is the day, back in 1895, that Sidney Wright, a porter at London’s Albemarle Club, handed Oscar Wilde a visiting card from the Marquess of Queensberry calling him a sodomite. Good times.

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