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Why does the moon fascinate us?

A meditation on our fascination with the moon.


What can we learn from Christopher McCandless?

By | Conversation, Food for thought, Inspiration, Thoughts, Topical | No Comments

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.

Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon. You are still going to live a long time, and it would be a shame if you did not take the opportunity to revolutionize your life and move into an entirely new realm of experience.”

Christopher McCandless, so affectionately known by his choice of pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp”, wrote this letter to a dear friend he had met on the road during his infamous adventure. The letter was addressed to an octogenarian ex-alcoholic who had fought in the war, lost his entire family, and now lived a sedentary life alone in a ramshackle apartment building in southern California – a man referred to in Krakauer’s Into the Wild as Ronald Franz, a pseudonym.

McCandless may have been a solitary figure, known to avoid close interpersonal relationships, but he had grown close to Franz during his stay in Southern California, and that Franz was living a such a sedentary life concerned him. In a turn of tradition, he didn’t hesitate in passing along his words of wisdom to Franz, decades his senior, who would usually take his advice with a grain of salt. After all, there were many cynical young vagabonds who would pass along their “enlightened” version of reality to whoever would lend an ear. But McCandless seemed different, not your usual castaway backpacker.

McCandless didn’t offer advice on traditional matters, though; he didn’t care for finances, career aspirations, personal relationships. He cared for a life on the road, spiritual freedom, and existential contentedness. He read enough Henry David Thoreau for a dozen university philosophy classes, and highlighted passages such as this one:

If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,–that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality… The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

Such a philosophy, scoffed at by many, clearly got to the soul of McCandless, and in so writing inspired Ronald Franz to shack up his belongings and begin a life on the road. Already into his eighties, with the majority of his rocky life behind him, perhaps it was this particular line that inspired him: “You are still going to live a long time.” If only McCandless could say the same about himself.

It is common, and somewhat reasonable, to examine McCandless’ mission, his journey to Alaska, as naive. Spoiler alert: McCandless died in Alaska – a frail, starved, and frozen body found weeks after, crumpled on the bench of a decrepit Fairbanks city bus in the Alaskan bush. His death was his own fault, that is for certain. He wasn’t prepared, he didn’t heed the warnings of those he met along the way. He was steadfast, or more stubborn – that was the consensus among those who met him on his travels, and his own family. So why would anybody follow such a destitute’s advice?

McCandless’ pilgrimage was not entirely unique. There are many notable examples of disillusioned twenty-somethings who, upon some spiritual awakening or traumatic life-incident, have embarked on a journey into the wild. Most of them also died there. But McCandless’ case is unique. Many people look at the few surviving photographs of McCandless – staged selfies with dead game, or seated casually and cross-legged in front of the abandoned Fairbanks city bus – and they see themselves. Much like the universal allure of Holden Caulfield, many people seem to identify with McCandless in a way they don’t with others who’ve opted to abandon society and live amongst nature.

Christopher McCandless has a charm – he didn’t shun society without a warm handshake, a smile, a willingness to walk briefly in our world, however hesitantly, and leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs of his charm – people who miss him, people who fell in love with him, and people who befriended him along his journey.

There is a way to follow the heart of McCandless’ words without necessarily dying in Alaska. The message itself is to evade comfort and seek novelty in life. He took this to the extreme, of course, but simply to abandon materialism, or at least reliance on materialism, and live a life that welcomes and is open to change – that’s the core of his message. McCandless saw a world filled with people shunning the concept of change – a society that valued conformity over individual expression and happiness – and that’s what he was escaping.

Perhaps the crux of his philosophy can be taken from reiteration of an excerpt of his letter to Franz:

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”

Change comes to those open to it, and with that change, the natural ebb and flow of life, happiness. To open ourselves to the call of the wild, whether that wild be the world’s nature or our own human nature, our own uninhibited wild selves. This is what McCandless recognized and sought with his pilgrimage, and that visceral feeling may very well be buried in all of us, somewhere, and is roused with the touch of his story – the story of a man who heeded their call to the wild with daring spirit.

“There is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

I’d recommend Into the Wild, the book or film, to anybody. The book was written by Jon Krakauer after the tremendous response to his January 1993 Outsider magazine cover story about McCandless, whose story inspired wonder, admiration, and criticism from many. Sean Penn directed an excellent film adaptation, with a notable original soundtrack by Eddie Vedder.

Photo of mountains: Rodrigo on Flickr, used under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 2.0 Generic license. No changes have been made. 

Photo of Fairbanks bus: Paolo Lucciola on Flickr, used under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 2.0 Generic license. No changes have been made. 


Just My Type: an exploration of the origins & impact of typography.

By | Books, Design, Graphic Design | No Comments

I’m not usually much of a reader.

I find it quite difficult to really get “into” a book – that is, to pick one up and just not be able to put it down. I long for that ability, that skill, the gift of having that obsession, but I don’t have it. So it’s rare that I pick up a book and one day put it down, finished.

Just My Type is one of those books. It didn’t compel me to read it every day, but the fascinating exploration of a world so familiar – the realm of typography – succeeded in making me think twice about the shapes through which we communicate.

That’s what letters are; shapes. Objects. Things, symbols. They exist out of necessity. It seems impossible to fathom that there was ever a time when letters weren’t a thing – they didn’t exist. And there was such a time – if we’re talking explicitly about the latin alphabet with which we are so familiar, it’s only a matter of centuries ago that our modern alphabet didn’t exist.

Letters in general? They go back a lot further – most agree we can attribute those to the Sumerians ~10,000 years ago. It’s a long time and it’s not a long time, depending how you look at it and in what scale of time you’re used to thinking. Considering the two million year history of modern man, this is hardly a day ago.

Forgetting for a moment about fonts and typefaces – getting back to those in a moment – consider the shapes of letters in their most basic form and function. These are micro-geometries to which we’ve assigned the sole purpose of carrying information. On their own they’re meaningless, it’s only when combined and concocted into words that they serve their function (forget about the single-letter words and a – these are words that happen to be one letter).

How incredible is that?

Now, for a long time, typefaces didn’t really exist, because everything was written by hand. This was long before Gutenberg and his printing press (and, also, the advent of printing in China centuries earlier). So you could look at it like each person’s handwriting was their own typeface, their own font. You have your own font as do I in that each of our handwriting is unique – in fact, it can even be used in forensics to identify criminals (which interestingly gave birth to the “ransom note” of cut-out letters from magazines – also, now, a font available online).

But it’s not a font in the technical sense. Fonts came about after movable type, for which we owe Gutenberg and his disciples (and also his predecessors) a huge “hey, thanks.” With the printing press came the reproduction of many words & letters through little metal pieces of type – literally a metal stick with a letter protruding from the end. The shape of this letter is what all the hum-drum is about. All of a sudden there was a tremendous creative opportunity for typographers to begin crafting and shaping what we would today call a typeface, and indeed some typefaces we still use in our digital worlds are one and the same as those used over 500 years ago (for example, Garamond or Jenson).

That isn’t to say typography and type design didn’t exist before printing – each calligrapher had their own style, and there were distinct styles, such as Gothic blackletter, with its distinct, thick black flares and ornaments, almost distractingly ornate. But it suddenly became possible to create a set of letters that would be widely reproduced – to design an “a” that would be the father of all printed “a”s using that set of metal letters.

To research and understand the origins of typography will give your head a spin and make you look differently at your blinking cursor and the incredible array of fonts you have to choose from when writing your term paper or resume. Hover over Arial, and you’ll think of its rival and predecessor Helvetica. Type something in Gill Sans and you’re writing the letters of a troubled designer now notorious for confessed acts of bestiality and an incestuous relationship with his sister.

Long story short, the history and origins of type are a trove of fascinating tales and stories that will make you think differently about such an everyday tool, and Simon Garfield’s Just My Type is just the book for it.

Jumping through time, Simon Garfield, the author of Just My Type, tells the story of type from metal punches to the immense digital libraries of today, appropriately broken up by Fontbreaks, which focus in on one type or another (the controversial creator of Gill Sans, the ill-fate of Doves, and the post-modern success story of Futura, to name a few).

I’d recommend this book to anybody with a passing interest in the history and creation of everyday things, to provide a new outlook on what is so often overlooked, or seen through.