The Symmetry of E

A few months ago I worked on creating a calling card for someone lucky enough to have both their first and last name begin with 'E.' Now, the letter 'e' isn't necessarily exciting en and of etself,* but when such symmetry exists it provides an immediate design possibility that, at the very least, must be attempted.**

I began by playing with the arms of the uppercase E as branches on a tree diagram that would lead to words that described qualities of the client. This only really makes sense with a sans-serif font and, as I had two E forms to work with, the potential existed for six lines leading to six qualities. After laying this out in a variety of ways I realized that the idea was conceptually bloated and inappropriate for the immediacy of a calling card.
On to the next idea— an abstracted cloud formed from a staggered stack of E forms. I chose Ed Benguiat's Edwardian Script ITC because the sweeping capital E had a lyrical and classic feel, which makes sense considering the fact the Benguiat was a consummate musician who designed his typefaces in the old days when you actually had to put pen to paper to realize a font (as opposed to electronic stylus to Wacom, or pen tool to virtual art board, or however it's done these days).

The resulting shape struck me as fantastically elegant and I loved it unconditionally.

Too bad it looked like a black rain cloud. And black rain clouds are depressing. They make for very poor calling card iconography. Changing the color didn't really help either and in the end I had to accept that I'd created a lovely little design element that would only be useful in some future design project. Then I became depressed; verifying that black rain clouds really are a bummer.

In the end, another design featuring floral dingbats became the calling card and I shelved the cloud. But I can't let it go. It has taken up residence on my desktop until I find a reason for its existence. Perhaps someone will eventually want a project that emphasizes silver linings.

*The worst alliteration ever.

**Although such immediate design solutions can also be traps if you can't shake them and experiment with other ideas or forms.



I wouldn't want to be accused of being stingy this holiday season so I thought I'd pass along a bit of information related to hot wine. I also want to give credit where credit is due, so I'll provide the recipe that served as the foundation for our experimentation, and I'll also state upfront that all of the ideas you read here came from my gifted wife— I'm just the messenger. Finally, I want all the kiddies to remember that, although some of the alcohol undoubtedly burns off through the heating process, this is still a drink for mommies and daddies.

There are as many recipes for mulled wine as there are names for this seasonal beverage: to the Germans its Gluhwein, to the French its called Vin Chaud, and to our Nordic friends its Glogg. Searching the net using the different names will yield different recipes. As my wife and I were introduced to this beverage by French friends one blisteringly cold night in Joshua Tree we started by searching for "Vin Chaud" and discovered this recipe from About.com.

Through a bit of trial and error we came up with the following modifications to the recipe:

WINE— The quality of the wine makes a difference so you should strive for something that is relatively inexpensive but not rotgut. We are partial to an Italian table wine called Antica Osteria that has been available at Whole Foods recently. Beaujolais tastes great too, but brought about acid reflux in the more sensitive stomachs.

COGNAC— No. No Cognac. See the "acid reflux" mentioned above.

VANILLA— The missing link to the Ms. Franklin's otherwise good recipe on About.com is vanilla extract. Give a small splash of vanilla to the mix and your wine will really sing. Well, not really sing, that's a figure of speech, but it makes it taste a whole lot better. On that ill-fated overnight at Joshua Tree our friends had insisted on vanilla for the wine and, for some reason, my wife managed to remember that all these years later. 

It goes without saying that your cinnamon shouldn't be so old that is was shipped by caravel. Also, you'll need to come up with a way to strain the wine so people aren't sucking down cardamon pods; after a few light burns I can recommend a wire strainer with hooks and a handle that allows it to rest over a small pot that is set on low heat to keep the vin chaud.

So dust off your mugs and get to the Glogg! Just remember, hot wine doesn't last as long as you'd suspect it too so plan on making more than would seem prudent.



You'd think that two weeks of inclement weather would have compelled me to blog more; after all, my car was under 26" of snow and my winter vacation was extended by four days, but alas I found myself with far too many seasonal commitments to take time to type. Furthermore, as the days progressed my back log of topics to blog about ballooned into a frustratingly insurmountable number. Paralysis set in. As did the mulled wine, and two weeks drifted past.

As I value you very much, dear reader, I will summarize some of the major tidbits of recent experience:

1. With thirty pounds of clipped cedar branches and four unexpected days off I refined my seasonal garland creation skills. Every lintel in the public area of the house was treated to fresh cut evergreen boughs, prickly holly, and many strands of white lights. They cast amazing shadows on the ceiling at night when the white lights were left on to cheer the hearts of pedestrians who might be peeping through our windows on their cold journey through the snow.

2. During numerous bouts of insomnia I uncovered a slew of websites devoted to free Photoshop tutorials, free PS brushes, and free vector art. These searches were driven by a recent need to create very specific vector art for a holiday gift project. More on vector art and its inherent awesomeness in some later post.

3. The aforementioned insomnia might have been slightly aided by a blossoming interest in hot spiced wine which, mysteriously, disappears at a far faster rate than the same wine served straight from the bottle. Now that I have a basic Gluhwein recipe under my belt I may devote next year to devising a mathematical equation that explains the rate of wine disappearance in relation to the temperature at which it is served.

4. This Christmas brought an abundance of photography related swag to your truly, perhaps indicating that I have been a better behaved person this year than in others. My excitement knows no bounds, and as soon as I've geeked out on camera-specs I will be heading out for a day or two of experimental shooting in the PDX area. 

5. I can't seem to shake Blonde Redhead from my, um. . . head. If you aren't familiar with this band then today is your lucky day because you can both discover their music, and do so for free, by downloading a number of jaw-droppingly good tracks off CNET.

I hope the holiday has been a happy one for you and yours. Let's all turn our thoughts now to the year ahead and how, at this moment, it holds nothing but promise and glory. 


Winter Revels

When the stage is dark and everyone waits; that is my favorite moment of a theatrical show. Rarely does a production live up to my hopes for it in that hushed anticipation. 

Anything is possible before the beginning.

* * * * *

In the dark of the theater this past Friday night there are towering aspens backlit by an undulating field of soft "Northern" lights. The stage has the blue cast of moonlight and all cell phones have been set to vibrate. We wait for something to happen.

From the dark of the wings sounds a collection of human voices imitating the shrill calls of hungry animals. Their cries die down into a haunting harmonization that is then shattered by similar calls all around the theater. Behind and above me the answering calls settle down into a chilling harmony of tones and Portland's Christmas Revels begin.

If you're unfamiliar with the Revels let me share the briefest of explanations. Each year in cities around the US a group of musicians, dancers, and actors put on a stage show featuring a mash-up of Christian and pagan holiday customs from some European culture. The show is quite a production, with elaborate costumes and complex musical arrangements supporting a tenuous plot based upon winter solstice fears and the redemptive power of children and audience participation. Anachronisms abound, Morris dancing is a must, and there's always at least one person on stage whose smile seems cemented in a Botox-induced mockery of joy. Nevertheless, the music rarely disappoints and there are always some fascinating staging tricks employing different percussive sounds and lighting. 

* * * * *

This year the theme for the Revels was based around "A Visit to the Scandinavian Northlands." Much of the story was an amalgam of gnome lore and an epic poem of Finnish folklore penned in the 1800's entitled The Kalevala. It contained a very amusing mummer's play (an English/Irish tradition) and the audience favorite Lord of the Dance (lyrics written in 1963 to the tune of the Shaker song Simple Gifts) despite the fact that neither of these things have an origin in Scandinavia. Thankfully, the show contained a number of very quiet moments, such as the mysterious Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which featured a dark procession of archetypal characters and the subdued rutting of antlered men. St. Lucia's procession was also depicted well although some of the magic is naturally lost when electronic candles are used for her crown.

Apart from the bracing opening the finest thing about the Revels this year was the music of the Karelian Folk Music Ensemble. This acoustic trio originates from an area that straddles the Finnish and Russian border. Every song they performed, be it for dancing or for crying, stirred up a deep resonance in me. These three men were the authentic heart of a show attempting to present a sense of yule in inhospitable Northern climes; they had no real need for artifice or costuming because they were of the place they presented. Without them I might have left entertained, but not moved. 

* * * * *

Upon returning home a rare snow began to fall accompanied by a bitter wind. I couldn't help but think that a few bars of music must have escaped the theater to call the winter out.



I enjoy wrapping gifts. I might enjoy wrapping them more than I enjoy making them (and, at the risk of sounding crotchety, I don't like shopping for them whatsoever).

I've made a unique birthday card for each of my students for the past three years now. Sometimes they follow a theme. For instance, last year all of the cards were adorned with dabs of watercolor and decorated with different Spirograph designs in an assortment of colored inks. Once, I drew two-tone portraits on mat board of famous historical figures that I thought might inspire the student.

Last night I completed a card using india ink and watercolor pencils* which was quite nice, but I was especially proud of the wrapping job— a simple combination of a magazine advert, sticker waste, and adhesive letters. 

In some ways though, a wonderfully wrapped gift can be a downer if the item inside doesn't live up to the grandeur of the packaging. I've witnessed this problem before and it can dampen the mood. At such times I always comfort myself with the thought that I'm just providing another subtle lesson in the spiritual vapidity of the consumerist paradigm.

*Watercolor pencils are the artistic refuge of the draftsman playing painter. A wonderful medium that has saved me many times.


The Lord's Gyre

Gustave Dore's depection of Dante's Paradisio, Canto 31
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Last night I dreamt that I was standing on a sidewalk in an empty night. 

From the impenetrable darkness I heard a child's voice begin the Lord's Prayer. Each word seemed to gather whispers off the sidewalk, and these whispers, speaking in time with the child, multiplied and magnified as the prayer continued, entwining my feet in a vortex of sound. The air around me quickened as the ever-widening spiral of voices gained a stormy momentum, and it seemed the whole of humanity was aiding and assisting this one child's words. In a moment the prayer had wrapped about my knees, and then it encompassed my sternum, until the tempest of voices, in ever expanding numbers and circles, rose over my head and into the darkness above.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Here then, is my confession: I never once looked up in the dream to witness the prayer's trajectory. My eyes remained rooted to where my feet contacted the Earth; at that spot where the first murmurings of prayers voiced for twenty centuries rose to support a lone child in the dark. My cells were expanding and my lungs no longer supported me. My heart felt like an organ pumping life down a million passages into the surrounding dark. But I never looked up. 

And so I remain tethered; to be greeted by another grey dawn.