Holiday Greetings!

Every year about this time I receive a special holiday greeting. Not just any ol’ greeting, but a package of original illustrated and silk-screened fine art cards. They’re beautiful. They always feature a mountain scene and night sky with an applied bright, shiny star. And they’re always the same size.

Illustrator and graphic designer Wild Bill Voiland – who once operated Wild Bill Graphics here in Spokane – has been creating these pieces of art for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure when I received my first, but I’ve kept a copy of every single card ever since.

Thanks for the annual holiday cheer, Wild Bill. And Merry Christmas to you as well.

Think Good, Write Gooder

From Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner (Princeton University Press, 1994):

“[W]riting is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills. Writing proceeds from thinking. To achieve good prose styles, writers must work through intellectual issues, not merely acquire mechanical techniques.”

I think this is correct—even though it’d be a heckuva lot easier if writing were nothing more than “a bundle of skills.” But, for me anyway, the thinking part of the equation is arguably more important than the actual writing—even though it’s the first to get tossed overboard when deadlines loom.


I picked up my first copy of Desert Oracle the summer before last at the Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, Nevada—mostly because its bright yellow cover stood out from all the self-published UFO- and Area 51-related tell-alls on the shelves.

A couple of minutes’ worth of reading and I was hooked. Ken Layne‘s digest-sized quarterly is part travelogue, part field guide, and part unapologetic nature writing—with a healthy dose of X-Files sprinkled in for good measure. Since then I’ve not only subscribed, I’ve also picked up every back issue available (sadly, no. 5 appears to be out of print).

If you like celebrating the weird and the wonderful, you need to subscribe. If you think the desert southwest is a mysterious and magical place, you need to subscribe. If you appreciate independent writing and publishing, you need to subscribe. And if you want to be responsible for the coolest present under the tree this year, you need to introduce someone to Desert Oracle with a gift subscription.

Finally, check out the podcast. It’s wildly entertaining and informative—and creepy as hell.

Breaking News: People Are Dumb

Got a text from the missus about the latest salvo in the War on Things We Don’t Like Right Now.™ Seems it’s not enough these days to dislike something—you’ve got to be a nuisance about it. To wit: deciding for others whether they ought to listen to a 1944 Christmas song because of its “inappropriate” lyrics (while pretending you’re not simply preening for social media attention).

It’s so tiresome, isn’t it? Thankfully, though, some radio stations have decided not to board the puritanical bandwagon.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t even like the song all that much. I mean, it’s not as heinous as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but it’s not great. I’m not even entirely sure why it’s considered a Christmas song.

But that’s not the point. I’ll let the missus speak for herself in the following transcript of yesterday’s text conversation:

“So … ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is inappropriate. What about ‘Santa Baby?'”

“Stop thinking. It only leads to trouble.”

“It was just on the radio and she’s pretty much whoring herself out for gifts.”

“But that’s probably empowering.” 

And that, ladies and gentleman, is why I married this woman.

Christmas Gift Idea for Aaron

The American edition of Andrew Roberts’s Churchill: Walking with Destiny comes out today.

I know, I know—you’re probably wondering whether yet another bio of the eminent British statesman was really necessary. Apparently so: Both the New York Times and the Economist named it one of the best books of the year.

What’s the fascination with Winston? Well, for one, he smoked as many as 10 cigars a day* and actually got a doctor’s note authorizing a minimum of 250 cc (a little over 8 oz.) of “alcoholic spirits” at meal times. During prohibition. I mean, sure, he led Britain to victory in WWII and wrote some 13 million words in 43 books and is one of the most significant figures of the 20th Century—a period with no shortage of significant figures—but c’mon. What a badass.

*According to former valet Roy Howells, “in two days his cigar consumption was the equivalent of my weekly salary.”

Quote of the Day

When studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn approached George Bernard Shaw to either convince the renowned playwright to create new material for feature films or purchase the rights to several of his plays (the account varies, depending on the source), negotiations quickly broke down.“Well, Mr. Goldwyn,” Shaw told him, “there is not much use in going on. There is this difference between you and me: You are only interested in art and I am only interested in money.”

Monday Miscellany

Surprise! Mid-century modern and minimalism are “a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears.”

Wanna be an artist? Jerry Saltz offers up “33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live life a little more creatively).” Rule no. 20: Accept that You Will Likely Be Poor.

Speaking of art, this is pretty cool.

For months in the early 1940s, Alexander Weygers and his wife Marian “slept in a tent he’d built and stayed alive on dandelion soup and gopher stew.” Meanwhile, he patented a flying saucer.

William Logan reviews Ursula K. Le Guin’s poetry. He’s…not kind: “There’s a breathless bit of Zen, a dash of lardish sentiment, and a lot of pure idiocy on every page.”

One of the Best

I first met Pat Lynch around the time he mailed out a two-page, typewritten RFP for annual report design services. It was dated July 5, 1988. My firm was lucky enough to receive his inquiry, respond, and subsequently begin a working relationship with one of my all-time favorite clients.

A contact sheet for the 1989 WWP annual report. Pat and I were scouting photography locations for the company’s CEO, Paul Redmond, and president, Jim Harvey. Photos by J.Craig Sweat.

Pat joined The Washington Water Power Company in 1983. This coming Friday—November 30th, 2018, 30 years after we first met—will be his last day with that company, now known as Avista. I’ve never met a better ambassador, regardless of the business or the industry. A true gentleman with the proper dose of integrity, humility, and empathy. A consummate professional with an equally good sense of humor. The son of a sportswriter and a fan of every sport. A team player and a community advocate. And a devoted husband, father, and grandfather.

Thank you, Pat. It’s been a real pleasure. Wishing you and Suzanne the very best.

Travelogue, part III

Some people’s vacation ideal is a Caribbean cruise, others a European getaway. Me? I dig road trips. And even though it’s a cliché, it’s true: the destination doesn’t really matter. It’s the experiences along the way.

Take Yosemite, for example. Even though I grew up in California, I’d never been before this year. Sure, I’d marveled at the Ansel Adams photos. I’d also read the stories about the over-crowding. So it was never high on my list. But the missus and I figured, Hey, we’re heading south—why not at least drive through the park and see what the fuss is all about?

Well…this, for one thing:

Half Dome on a crisp fall afternoon.

And this:

All 3,000 feet of “El Cap,” as the cool climbing kids call it.

Nothing—and I mean nothing—can prepare you for the Yosemite Valley. We ended up camping in the park overnight, then driving over Tioga Pass early the next morning, stopping long enough to brew up a pot of coffee and fix some breakfast to enjoy along with the magnificent solitude of Tuolomne Meadows.

Call me crazy, but the western Sierra might just be the most beautiful place on Earth.

Check out Instagram (#superhappyfuntimeroadtrip) to see more.

Travelogue, part II

Representing everything from wartime paranoia to outright racism, Manzanar paints a rather sordid picture of American history in the 20th century. And yet today—some 75 years after 10,000 Japanese Americans and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated there—it’s, well…beautiful. Desolate, depressing, and infuriating, sure, but, despite everything, there’s something about it that also quiets the soul.

A reproduction of one of the eight guard towers that loomed over the one-square-mile residential area of Manzanar War Relocation Center.

Pinnacles, on the other hand—the newest of our national parks, achieving that status in 2012—holds an entirely different spell over me. I grew up in the area, spending many a Saturday afternoon exploring its talus caves, wandering dry creek beds in search of fossils, and trying (somewhat successfully) to avoid scorpions. It’s been 40 years since I last wandered its trails, and nothing’s changed—other than the 30-odd California condors, who were introduced to the park in 2003.

Looking southwest from the Balconies Cliffs Trail—and back four decades in time.

Yosemite was breathtaking, Death Valley mesmerizing, Joshua Tree stupefying. But Pinnacles was easily the most meaningful stop on this year’s road trip for me. Chalk it up to nostalgia, I guess.

Check out #superhappyfuntimeroadtrip on Instagram for more photos.

Travelogue, part I

Under cover of darkness on the evening of November 2, the missus and I decamped for warmer climes—namely Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks (with a stop at Yosemite on the way down and Pinnacles on the way back up).

Death Valley, a starkly beautiful place of striking color—and oppressive silence.

All told, we logged close to 50 miles on foot through canyons, across sand dunes, and over old mining roads—and even managed to get a little spelunking in. We saw bats, roadrunners, coyotes, lizards, countless songbirds, rabbits, deer, and a bobcat. And lots of European tourists. And a U.S. Navy F/A-18 screaming through Rainbow Canyon at dusk.

Sunset at the Seussian Joshua Tree.

With temps in the low 50s at night reaching to the upper 80s by mid-afternoon, this is definitely the time of year to visit the southern California desert—though short days tend to limit your activities somewhat. On the other hand, that just means the crystal-clear night sky arrives sooner than usual.

Like last year’s #superepicmegaroadtrip, shots from this year’s #superhappyfuntimeroadtrip can be seen on Instagram if y’all are interested. More in tomorrow’s post…

Monday Miscellany

Okay, so, I’m back. (Yeah, I know, you probably hadn’t noticed I’ve been gone for a couple of weeks. Just…humor me, mmm-kay?) Anyway, I don’t have a lot of time for my typical profundity, so here’s a list of things you ought to be aware of.

The fact that this argument needs to be made is a sad commentary on the state of conversation these days.

Speaking of such things, here’s a collection of “philosophers philosophizing about philosophy on world philosophy day.”

In praise of the lowest form of wit: “Puns straddle that happy fault where sound and sense collide, where surface similarities of spelling or pronunciation meet above conflicting seams of meaning.”

In archaeology news, the lost city of Tenea has been found—while the mosaic floor of a 1,600-year-old synagogue appears to depict some rather unusual subject matter.

And finally, “all seven units in the International System of Units…will no longer be defined by material objects and instead will be defined only by abstract constants of nature.” About time, amirite?

Read up, and we’ll be back with our regularly scheduled awesomeness tomorrow.

Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned

Two new studies seem to confirm that “people who drink their coffee black often have psychopathic or sadistic traits,” and that, in general, “bitter taste preferences are associated with antisocial personality traits.” No doubt it’s all true—because, you know, #science.

According to the accepted manuscript, “bitter taste preferences are positively associated with malevolent personality traits, with the most robust relation to everyday sadism and psychopathy.”

So, to sum up, I’m a bitter, unpleasant person who probably wants to murder you. And with that, I take my leave for a couple of weeks. Back in mid-November.

Silver Lining Alert

Joshua Gill, Daily Caller: “Sergey Savitsky, an engineer at Bellingshausen Station in the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, stands accused of stabbing welder Oleg Beloguzov in the chest after arguing with him over Beloguzov’s habit of repeatedly spoiling the endings of the books that Savitsky was reading.”

Holly Genovese, Electric Lit: “In September, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced that all free book donations to incarcerated people in Pennsylvania state facilities would be banned. This ban was created alongside stringent mail search policies, in a purported effort to prevent drugs from entering prison.”

Me: “Yay! People are reading!”

An Early Remembrance. And a Poem.

It’s a little early for an Armistice Day post, but I was so moved by this short reflection by Jay Copp that I wanted to share it right away. “[World War I] was staggering in its stupidity, its senseless slaughter,” he writes. “It was a testing ground for the horrors of modern warfare: poison gas, no man’s land, massive bombs that destroyed bodies. Did duty to country make it all tolerable?”

And since I’ll be gone for a couple of weeks starting this coming Monday, I reckon now’s as good a time as any to post John McRae’s rondeau in honor of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, killed at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915:


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Art Update

“Rarely was the practical task of textile creation considered an artistic pursuit,” writes Kylie Warner. “One woman changed that.” Anni Albers gets some welcome recognition at a new retrospective exhibition at London’s Tate Modern. You know, if you happen to be in the area.

Speaking of art exhibits, did you know that Victor Hugo—yeah, that Victor Hugo—had a talent for creepy drawing? The Hammer Museum at UCLA is showing some of his work.

And in acquisitions news, this is pretty cool.

Poetry Break

Leonard Cohen

I pray for courage
Now I’m old
To greet the sickness
And the cold

I pray for courage
In the night
To bear the burden
Make it light

I pray for courage
In the time
When suffering comes and
Starts to climb

I pray for courage
At the end
To see death coming
As a friend

from The Flame (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)

Sounds great!

You know Gmail’s new “Smart Reply” feature? Those “bland formulations of convenient and functional corporate language” that sit there at the bottom of your received emails? Sophie Haigney has some thoughts:

The algorithm is mimicking us, but now we’re also mimicking it. The algorithm—which I’m using as shorthand for a series of complicated machine-learning processes—has been absorbing human-email-speak by creeping through billions of perfunctorily worded emails—and it is now spitting them back at us. It’s a refraction, then, of how we write to each other online. But suggestions are also manipulations, as we might know from, say, Amazon’s effective monetization of RIYL logic. Yet these seemingly gentle intrusions into our digital lives are not so passive as they might appear.

It’s the degeneration of language, she writes, the function of which is “to eliminate complexity, to pare communication down to dumbness, to ‘acknowledge’ or ‘affirm’ without saying much of anything.”

So, basically, perfect for the world we live in.

Word of the Day

adjal (noun; Indonesian) the predestined hour of one’s death

As Steven washed down his breakfast of pizza-flavored Pringles with a second can of Red Bull Yellow Edition, Aaron mentally calculated the younger man’s adjal—and was alarmed to discover that, if his math was correct, it was much, much sooner than his own.

The Power of Design

Last Friday, you’ll recall, we linked to Michael Watts’s “Cover Stories: A History of Magazine Design,” which argues that “a striking image and a few well-chosen words still have the power to influence.”

Today, Madeline Raynor makes the case that “some of the least aesthetically pleasing artwork you’ve ever seen” can make even Dostoevsky look like a “literary abomination.” Really, folks, you have to see these steaming piles book covers to believe they exist.


A “striking image and a few well-chosen words still have the power to influence,” writes Michael Watts about Uncovered, a history of revolutionary magazine covers published earlier this month.

Only 249 individuals in the world have passed the Master Sommelier Exam. More people have been to space. Should we be surprised, then, that 23 applicants cheated this year?

Nearly half of Americans suffer from loneliness. Meanwhile, narcissism “has become so widespread and so fundamental to all aspects of culture that the question is whether it can properly be identified as a pathology any longer.” Stephen Marche says we’re living in a “crisis of intimacy.”

Marche isn’t the only one sounding the alarm. “The world today is faster, more scheduled, more fragmented, less patient, louder, more wired, more public,” argues MIT professor Alan Lightman. We need some downtime.

It’s not all depressing news for the weekend. There are otters.

I’ll Tumble 4 Ya

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’d like to draw your attention to this security camera footage, obtained just this morning:


Note Ms. Sowards’s absent-minded demeanor as she discovers she no longer holds a pen in her hand, and how long it takes—measured in distance—before she realizes she’s actually dropped it: three full steps. Note the exaggerated way in which she puts herself together after bending over to pick up said pen, and how she nearly collides with the table on her left. Note also how her left leg simply stops working, how she collapses into a heap onto the floor, and how she staggers about in a haze once she returns to an upright position.

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit that something is amiss.

Ms. Sowards is not only young, but also fit. She goes to the gym at least twice a week. It’s simply not possible for someone in her condition to fall like an 85-year-old in need of a hip replacement. And as you can see from the footage, there’s neither a banana peel on the floor nor evidence of structural weakness in the concrete.

There are only two possibilities here. Either (a) Ms. Sowards is new to the world of fashion and is wearing heeled booties for the very first time, or (b) she was, in fact, quite drunk at 10:56 a.m. on a Wednesday. The former is clearly untenable—which leaves you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with the only evidence you need to make a decision.

I rest my case.

No individuals were harmed during filming, though Courtney’s knee is admittedly still a little sore.

Eyes Wide Open

Before Stanley Kubrick’s rise to fame as a filmmaker, he was a photojournalist for Look magazine. He began in 1945—when he was just 17 years old—and spent the next five years as a full-time photographer with the magazine.

I had no idea. But that’s what makes traveling to New York City so interesting. I discovered Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York while visiting its Pentagram-designed permanent installation New York at Its Core (also a must-see).

Kubrick’s black and white images demonstrate an eye for capturing interesting subjects and a knack for visual storytelling. His experience at Look seems to have informed his future career as a motion picture director of such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining.

Monday Musings

I got an email today from my local Subaru dealership. I wouldn’t ordinarily mention this sort of thing—they send at least a couple a week, after all—but this particular email stood out. Here’s how my iPhone truncated the subject line:

“Aaron, use these services to make love…”

What’s missing, it turns out, is “last.” Not “all night long” or “to the voluptuous vixen of your dreams” or “if you’re having trouble with the ladies on accounta you’re a creepy perv who no one would sleep with even of you were the last man on Earth.” (“Make Love Last” is the name of Subaru’s trademarked winter service event, so it makes sense, I guess.)

Either way, the dealership’s “experienced sales staff is eager to share its knowledge and enthusiasm with you.” That’s…thoughtful.

But that’s not the point of today’s blog post. No, that would be that Nikon just announced the winners of its 2018 Small World Photomicrography Competition.

So forget I said anything about Subaru and its purported lovemaking assistance, which, let’s get real here, should be easy to do when you’re looking at a flea magnified 20 times (shudder).

Support Your Local Bookstore

Looks like my parents got at least one thing right: “A new large-scale study, featuring data from 31 countries…finds the advantages of growing up in a book-filled home can be measured well into adulthood.”

Increased rates of literacy (defined as “the ability to read effectively to participate in society and achieve personal goals”) and numeracy (“the ability to use mathematical concepts in everyday life”) are just some of the advantages conferred when there are as few as 80 books on your home shelves.

So why not do your kids a favor? Build ’em a library.

Quote of the Day

Ever come across something so profound that you simply have no response other than to smack yourself on the forehead in wonder and amazement?

That happened to me a while back when I was reading Kerouac’s On the Road. I found the answer to everything—and no, it doesn’t really matter what the question is.

Ready? Here it is:

“Some’s bastards, some’s ain’t, that’s the score.”

See what I mean? Forget your fancy philosophy books and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, that there’s where it’s at.

You’re welcome.

Giving Back

Have you heard? Another Helveticahaus scholarship winner was just announced.

This is kind of a big deal. Since they opened the retail shop/philanthropic organization back in 2015, founders CK and Linda Anderson have handed out $4,000 to second-year graphic design students at Spokane Falls Community College, their alma mater.

Why? Simple: They wanted “to give back – in a creative and meaningful way – to the design profession that has given so much to us.”

If you’re interested in helping the cause, it’s pretty easy. Just buy something. All profits go right into the scholarship fund, so you’d be directly helping the next generation of designers. (And getting some pretty sweet Helvetica-themed and -inspired swag out of the deal, too.)


This is dumb. This is even dumber.

(I’d try to explain why I’m immune to Banksy’s purported charms, but I’m currently in an office surrounded by designer types, and saying the wrong thing about one of their cherished icons can quickly get you fitted for a Chicago overcoat. Read Wesley Morris’s “The Morality Wars” in the New York Times Magazine to see where I’m coming from.)

Curmudgeonly Rant

Not that anyone cares, but here are three somewhat-related things I was stewing about on my walk today:

First, an app I dearly loved (no, really) updated recently. It’s called Dark Sky, and I actually paid money for it—because it’s a weather app that gives you the information you need in a beautiful layout. Or, rather, it used to give you the information you need in a beautiful layout. Now, after the “update,” it’s glitchy and looks terrible.

Second, I took my third and final ride on a Lime scooter the other day. No, I didn’t wreck it or anything. It’s just that, for some reason now, the company no longer charges your credit card per ride. Instead, you have to put money into an account, from which Lime withdraws funds whenever you use the service.

Third, I noticed I wasn’t seeing photos from some accounts I follow on Instagram. Skooch informed me that its updated algorithm only shows you feeds from accounts you actively engage with—liking an image, say, or (even better, apparently) commenting. So even though I chose to follow certain accounts, this mysterious algorithm is choosing the content it believes I want to see.

This is progress? Sorry, but no. I know I’m old, but this is all very dumb.

Take Two Sonnets and Call Me in the Morning

As I may have mentioned here once or twice before, I like to begin each day with a little poetry. There’s the obvious benefit—the joy one experiences when one is exposed to art—but there’s also a practical reason: I’m (nominally) a writer. And poetry, it seems to me, is the highest expression of that dubious title.

“Language begins with the letter,” explains Helen Vendler in The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, “progresses to the word, advances to the sentence, and ends in the stanza.” Or, as Proust famously said, “The tyranny of rhyme forces the poet to the discovery of his finest lines.”

In other words, poetry is hard.

But there’s more to rhythm and rhyme than training to become a better writer. Turns out it’s good for your health. Specifically, “poetic, musical, and other nonpharmacologic adjuvant therapies can reduce pain and the use and dosage of opioids.” There’s more:

One randomized clinical trial by researchers at the University of Maranhão studied the effect of passive listening to music or poetry on the pain, depression, and hope scores of 65 adult patients hospitalized in a cancer facility. They found that both types of art therapy produced similar improvements in pain intensity and depression scores. Only poetry, however, increased hope scores.

So. The next time you’re feeling a little under the weather, try dusting off your Wordsworth.

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