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A Prophet Speaks

Ken Layne is a weird dude. And I say this as a guy who subscribes to Layne’s delightful periodical and listens to his quirky podcast. But the thing is, he’s also largely correct on the things that matter in our particular moment:

I feel like we are post-language now…. Things are more symbolic. The relationship between words and facts and objectivity and their impact seems to have separated to the point where most of the writing that I see, especially on something like Twitter, is by people baffled that people don’t get what they are trying to say. It’s depressing.

He’s also right about the draw of the desert wilderness, something the missus and I have only recently come to terms with:

The Romantics very deliberately mixed the excitement of paganism, taboo, spiritualism, romance—the idea that you go out in the wilds not to quietly and respectfully count wrens but to openly seek communion with the world. The weird parts of the desert I try to push and validate as our equivalence of Moses in the Sinai or Paul on the desert road or the Buddha sitting out under a tree hallucinating demons….

I’ve had a mystical experience in the desert: silence. Not the absence of sound, but the literal presence of silence. And believe me, there’s a huge difference between the two. You feel it; a connection to something bigger than you, whether God or Gaia or whomever. These experiences are real—and “incredibly relevant to today,” says Layne. “The numbing horror of social media and the digital age. To escape it is getting harder and harder.”

But escape it we must if we’re to keep our sanity.

Enough Already!

In “The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn’s Treasure,” Daniel Barbarisi uses the word solve five times. And in four of those five instances, it’s a noun. No, really. See for yourself:

“…claiming that he had stolen the plaintiff’s solve and used it to find the chest.”

“So while he remained guarded about his solve and the location where he discovered the treasure…”

“…had located it by hacking her texts and emails and stealing her solve.”

“For my book, I’ve interviewed him about his solve…”

It’s almost as if Barbarisi isn’t aware that there’s a noun form—solution—of the verb he’s so intent on abusing. But that can’t be it, can it? I mean, he’s a grown man employed by a respected periodical. No, it has to be intentional, which makes it inexcusable.

Repeat after me: Unnecessarily nouning a verb doesn’t make you sound cool or hip or edgy or whatever it is you’re after. It makes you sound like an idiot. (Don’t let that stop you from reading the article, though. It really is quite interesting.)

Mistakes Were Made

“People who have not published books are often appalled at typos,” writes Alan Jacobs, “because they think their presence means that the book has been proofread carelessly or not at all.” Far from it, he explains. Everyone from the author to the proofreader to the copyeditor has a look. Many times. (Here at helveticka, we make anyone even tangentially connected to a project take a gander at least once.)

And yet typos remain. Jacobs illustrates the problem thus:

On the first page of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude the gypsy Melquiades comes to Macondo carrying powerful magnets, which pull all sorts of metal things along behind them, and “even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most.” Typos are like that: they appear from where they had been searched for most. At times you’re tempted to attribute them to poltergeists. When you see them you make a note to correct them in future editions (should you be so fortunate as to have a future edition), shrug, and move on with your life.

“Move on with your life.” Yeah, right.

Christmas Came Early This Year

Ever wanted to brush up on your Hittite? Listen to someone recite Beowulf in the original Old English? Get knee-deep in Proto-Indo-European etyma from Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch? Then scrap your weekend plans, buckle up, and head on over to the Linguistics Research Center. I for one plan on starting my Tocharian lessons right away.

And honestly? It wouldn’t hurt to show these folks a little love with a donation.


“Everything they said to each other, how they interacted, was nothing but a dance. It was hilarious to watch two superegos dance around each other. Neither one of them was going to be the first one to give it up.” Over at JazzTimes, A. D. Amorosi reveals what happened when two legends met—and, tantalizingly, what might have been—in the fascinating “The Ballad of Miles Davis and Prince.”

If I were asked to describe Liz Garbus’s 2011 film Bobby Fischer Against the World in one word, I’d have to say, “heartbreaking.” But don’t let that stop you from seeing it if you haven’t already. Watch it for free right here.

Separating art from the artist: “If I had not existed,” William Faulkner told The Paris Review, “someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.”

“Baffling in Its Ineptitude”

If you experience fits of schadenfreude whenever pretentious artsy-fartsy types get their comeuppance—and who doesn’t, really?—you’re gonna love this account of one of the biggest Broadway flops of all time. Most quotable line: “[I]f you’re staging a Spider-Man musical, it’s probably not ideal to have a director who isn’t keen on Spider-Man comics and two composers who aren’t keen on musicals.”

And speaking of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ideas, anyone remember Cop Rock? This, folks, was actually broadcast on network television:

As I was explaining to the missus just last night, the show was promoted so breathlessly—yet was so obviously destined to be a steaming pile—that I resolved to hate-watch the entire season. I barely made it through the first episode. I mean, it’s bad. And not in the so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, either.

Should we derive pleasure from such things? Given the year we’re all having, yes. Yes, we should.


Thanks to a little help from the latest book by Rich Landers, the missus and I spent a good chunk of Saturday exploring the wonders of Post Falls Community Forest.

Now, admittedly, after twenty-nine years in Spokane I suspected I knew all the cool places to hike, and purchased the book mostly to support Auntie’s and the Mountaineers. And, sure enough, it turns out I’ve been to most of the places Landers recommends. But not this one. Let me just say that if all I ever got out of Urban Trails was this one hike on this one afternoon, it would totally be worth the price of the book.

So. If there’s anyone on your Christmas list who appreciates the natural beauty of our region—or needs convincing of same—give ’em Urban Trails. And get yourself a copy while you’re at it.

Design to the Rescue (Again)

I get why New York City recently boarded up its storefronts. It’s a sad state of affairs. But I wholeheartedly agree with Steven Heller’s suggestion to let artists and designers use the opportunity to express life and vitality. We need that right now – even if only temporarily.

“Empty plywood cries out for posters,” writes Heller, “and posters add life to the cityscape. Why not let New York artists and designers have the freedom to fill them? Provide temporary permits if that’ll help. Eventually the plywood will be removed, right?”

Heller likens it to his parents allowing him to use crayons to draw on the apartment walls before they were painted. “It was temporary,” he recalls, “but, man, was it fun.”

I had a similar experience as a four-year-old – but with a much different outcome. Upon seeing my brilliant aesthetic on display on our living room wall, my mom instituted the then-common practice of corporal punishment. It’s okay, though. I survived to draw another day.

“An Overdue Tribute”

Unless you live in—or were planning to visit—the UK, you probably won’t have an opportunity to catch Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work at London’s Design Museum. Plus, well…there’s that whole COVID thing that keeps shutting things down.

It’s too bad, really, because hers is a story worth checking out. In fact, I recommend you get to know Margaret Calvert a little better if you’ve got the time.

It’s Not My Fault!

One of the few Gen-X characteristic that actually applies to me is slacker.* I’m about as lazy and unambitious as it gets. So it was with some interest that I read the following tweet this morning:

I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s funny. And if it is true, it sure does explain a lot. I mean, I got the whole treatment, starting with the “gifted” program in an already experimental elementary school, which inevitably led to disappointment when my grades didn’t reflect my special status. Same thing in high school, when the two highest scorers on the Knowledge Bowl team (one of whom was me, though I was way behind the other guy) had the lowest GPAs.

I had always assumed it was my laziness that did me in. But it turns out it was all the well-meaning adults who praised my intellect, sending me into an “existential spiral” and ultimately dooming me to a life of mediocrity. I feel better already.

*Yeah yeah, also cynical.

The Magical, Mystical Camelopardalis

“The world is a wild and unlikely place,” writes Katherine Rundell in a short but delightful essay in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. For proof, look no further than the giraffe. Even its birth, she writes, is cause for wonder: “They gestate for 15 months, then drop into existence a distance of five feet from the womb to the earth. It looks as brisk and simple as emptying out a handbag.”

It gets weirder. Giraffes use their 20-inch tongues to clean out deep inside their own nostrils. They drink water only every few days—because “each time a giraffe dips down to drink, legs splayed, the blood rushes to its brain; as it bends, the jugular vein closes off blood to the head, to stop it fainting when it straightens up again.” In one study, ninety-four percent of observed sexual behavior was male-on-male.

A wild and unlikely place, indeed. How did we ever lose our sense of wonder at the strangeness of it all?

The More Things Change…

The November 16, 1920 edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle reports on a disturbing trend: University of Idaho undergraduates “intent on murdering their mother tongue.” I suppose the difference between then and and now is that, according to the statistics compiled at the time, freshmen accounted for four times the number of “derelictions” recorded, leading one to conclude that an education might actually make a difference.

A hundred years later, though, adults who ought to know better use reference and impact and transition as verbs while insisting that FBI is an acronym and ask is a noun. And, of course, who think that listing their favorite IPAs on Instagram is “curating.”

So, yeah, the mother tongue is dead. It’s bleeding demised. It’s passed on. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.

Cheer Up!

Think things are bad now? They’re going to get a lot worse, according to data nerd/pine beetle expert Peter Turchin.

“Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs,” writes Graeme Wood. “To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working.”

Those models are apparently pointing to “civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced.” In fact, Turchin predicted a decade ago that things would start getting real in…2020. Yeah.

As for me, I choose to believe that we humans are far too complex for such predictions to be taken all that seriously. And even if they do come true, well…what are you gonna do? As the great philosopher Eric Idle says:

You know, you come from nothing
You’re going back to nothing
What have you lost? Nothing


Shelf Awareness

Over at The Millions, Ed Simon writes about an anxiety that is all too real to me: a fear concerning “the manner in which the enormity of a library’s collection forces me to confront the sheer magnitude of all that I don’t know, all that I will never know, all that I can never know.”

Preach, brother.

“Intrinsic to my fear,” Simon continues, “are those intimations of mortality whereby even a comparatively small collection must make me confront the fact that in a limited and hopefully not-too-short life I will never be able to read even a substantial fraction of that which has been written. All those novels, poems, and plays; all those sentiments, thoughts, emotions, dreams, wishes, aspirations, desires, and connections—completely inaccessible because of the sheer fact of finitude.”

Like I said, it’s real. How do I not throw up my hands in despair, you ask? By regularly reminding myself that reading is a pleasure, not a duty—which means you can happily ignore the scolds who think otherwise. It also means that (knock on wood) there’s quite literally an endless supply of good times ahead. Sure, it’s probably better if you spend that time with Moby-Dick rather than, say, dinosaur erotica, but hey, we’re not here to judge.

Music and Neuroscience

When I’m listening to Arvo Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine and I get goosebumps on my arms and feel prickly sensations on the back of my neck and experience the tinglies, well…all over, it’s on accounta “greater cortical connectivity,” apparently. Good to know.

Go ahead. Check your orbitofrontal cortex:


If that was good for you, try the fourth movement of Vaughan Williams’s Job: A Masque for Dancing (“Scene III: Minuet of the Songs of Job and Their Wives,” right around the 2:30 mark), or “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets, or Hiram Bullock’s guitar solo on Sting’s version of “Little Wing.”

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