Black Ribbon Award

EXPOSING THE SEX HOAX

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Growing up in New Jersey, one is bound sooner or later to be told about the legend of the “Jersey Devil.” The creature dwells deep within the scorched terrain of the Pine Barrens, and has been there for centuries. It is strangely amorphous, taking on physical traits of any number of animals. One time I read that it started its life as a mutant baby of sorts, who had legs where its arms should have been and arms where its legs should have been.

No one has definitively seen the Jersey Devil, though it’s not for lack of trying. Scores of would-be ghost hunters, paranormal investigators, and cryptozoologists flood into the forbidden region to be the first to confirm or clarify—never to deny, mind you—the precise dimensions and our state’s beloved monster.

I will save everyone some time by stating right out that the Jersey Devil is not real. Manufactured, no doubt, by the Pinies for the purpose of repelling outsiders from entering their cherished abode. Clearly they should not have bothered, but I understand the impulse.

The human world is teeming with Jersey Devils: wholly phantasmal concepts which we collectively uphold for this or that reason. If you’re a stupid person desperate to sound approximately smart, you’d call them “noble lies.” This should not come as a particular shock, such lies are useful and sometimes fun, provided that we can keep them in some kind of control. Lately that seems less and less possible.

The Jersey Devil is a very helpful reference when thinking about sex. As with the Jersey Devil, you are bound to hear of its existence sooner or later. You will be told of its superhuman, otherworldly abilities and of the seemingly limitless forms it can take. You will be told of the great lengths taken to go in search of it and of the near-successful sightings in the process. They are always half-glanced: an echo in the dark, a flutter in the corner of the eye, or a pungent aroma somewhere between death and afterlife that emanates from nowhere in particular. Some will be bolder and claim evidence of a direct encounter. Of course it is never from the claimant, but from someone the claimant knows well enough; if not his roommate then his roommate’s cousin, who went out to 7-Eleven for some milk one night but was deferred into an obscure plane by sex, and it was quite something, he was never the same again. On and on the stories go, often in greater detail but never much closer to any sense of truth.

I suppose it is a credit to our species that we’ve been able to maintain the sex hoax for as long as we have. It seems as though we’ve been telling it to ourselves for a millennium at least. And yet we can only maintain it for so long. Soon enough its internal logic will begin to corrode and its structure will collapse not long after. Even in so progressive an age, this has not seemed to occur to anyone; to wit, it would appear that, by and large, sex is a genuine phenomenon that happens routinely and to considerable merriment.

This is indeed a perplexing and distressing situation. It leaves three questions in need of answering: why is this so? How is this so? And through what means can this be made not to be so?

The first question is perhaps the easiest to answer. Human life is nothing if not devoid of any coherent point, rooted in total absurdity, and perpetuated to no particular end. It is a manifestly tragic bent, more tragic because humans take no pleasure in this truth. Rather than exalt the freedom of pure obsolescence, humanity is ever grasping for anything that will divert it and bestow meaning. Sex was probably not the first diversion attempted, but it is the most enduring. Unlike other diversions—religion, ideology, culture, etc.—it is tangible, giving sense as much to the body as it does to the mind. Sex is pleasurable and purposeful all at once. There is accomplishment in having achieved it and often mutual rather than isolated satisfaction. But herein lies certain challenges. Sex must also be kept at a distance. The closer you get to sex, the less enchanting it is. The diversion is temporary and the satisfaction soon dissipates until it is totally forgotten. Anyone who experiences sex is likely to be much worse off than those who have not. The mind must forever be on sex. Humans must be bedeviled and fixated; they must seek it fruitlessly yet still proselytize it wildly.

Maintaining this equilibrium requires incredible mastery of discipline and a comfort in deception. But how that is done is not so simple to uncover. It lends to considerable speculation. Obviously sex is orchestrated by an intricate network of dedicated actors. There is no one source but several acting in unison for the greater good of soothing the troubled masses. It’s a mind-bending conspiracy of staggering proportions. Everyone is in on it: the schools, the advertisers, the Instagram influencers. That pornography you’re watching? Just one of several thousand “moon landings” being daily—even hourly—produced to fool you. Not even so-called “parents” are exempt from this charade. And sure, you might ask “What about babies? They don’t come from the fucking stork, do they?” Of course not, you idiot. They come from China! Chinese factories, that is. All it takes is a blacklight to the bottom of an infant’s foot or the back of its neck and you’ll easily see the barcode and serial number. If that doesn’t convince you, you need only unscrew its head, much as you would open a wine bottle, to reveal the intricate synthetics from within. Press under its jaw and you hit the master switch allowing you to disassemble and reassemble its interchangeable extremities at your whim. (Perhaps the Jersey Devil does exist after all. Curiouser and curiouser!)

At one time, manufacturing sex was probably an honorable endeavor, and its present nefariousness may not have been the initial intention. But nefarious is as nefarious does, and it must be nipped in the bud so that humanity might see its truth and be made free once more. But how this is done is harder to answer. Experience has taught me this.

I’m nothing if not a crusader at heart. If there’s a cause in which I firmly believe or a wrong that needs to be righted, I don’t shirk from advocating or confronting it with all my strength and intellect. I thought that unveiling the sex hoax would be no different. I decided to go grassroots: to redress it from the bottom-up, finding individual actors and rooting them out. Couples were high on my list of suspects, their happiness clearly being in direct proportion to their complicity. I singled out one couple and tailed them for a few weeks. Then I knocked on their door posing as a census taker … whose car broke down … and whose phone was dead. They exuding all manner of middle-class kindness let me in to call AAA. While we wait, they make me coffee. We get to talking and I commence ensnaring them.

I start with the clinical census jargon, then segue into more casual talk as they break out the wine. Me? I have a girlfriend, yes. A steady, serious very long-term relationship—engaged to be engaged and all that. I compliment their compatibility and ask them what’s their “secret”? They chuckle discretely, then I’m basically in. We talk leisure activities, intimacy, vulnerability, favorite positions, safe words, where this is all going, what are their real names, etc. Things get a bit heated. “That’s none of your beeswax, sir!” or “That’s disgusting, who does that?” They suggest that I leave but I’m not backing down. We’re just getting started. The man gets rough and shoves me. Then I hear a cry coming from the other room. Their baby is awake. An opportunity I’d not planned on! “We’ll get to the bottom of this,” I declare as I move toward its crib. But lo, I am tackled, left with two black eyes, a busted lip, and an uncorked baby.

History is full of alleged “mad men”; searchers for truth who get a little too close and who must endure a lifetime and then some of censure, ridicule, and suppression before ultimate vindication. They have many more names for me, alas: home invader, assaulter, attempted kidnapper and murderer. Attempted! Even when throwing the book at you they must remind you of your failure. Fine, I plead guilty to your “charges” if it means that much to you. But my true crimes are lack of patience and lack of finesse. I was wrong in my crusading approach. Combatting the sex hoax requires a far more subversive attitude than I am able to muster. My hope as that as I write these words that the subversives may already be at work, dismantling sex piece by piece until it is just another faulty, implausible myth of a superstitious age.

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A CYNICAL TAXONOMY OF CYNICISM

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The thing about me that most informs my thinking and action, but which I don’t particularly like to advertise, is my cynicism. If to some people my expressed thoughts, taken as a whole, seem like a tangle of neglected shrubbery, it is at least in part to better conceal the root from which it all grows. That root is the belief that the first and last principle of all mankind is survival. The belief that any virtue or principle, no matter how sincerely held, is often served on the invisible hand of privilege. The belief that even the most casual or fleeting human interaction rests on a lopsided power balance. And the belief that few decisions are made for their basic rightness alone and without a careful weighing of the costs and benefits.

I never liked to make these beliefs explicit for a few reasons. One is that it was never my intention to become a cynic; it just sort of happened. Chalk it up, I suppose, to my upbringing. Suburbanites are not themselves cynical, they are pragmatic in the pursuit of maintaining their status quo. But if one bristles at that pragmatism while not being smart enough to overcome it, one invariably falls into cynicism. Another reason is that cynicism, however true, is boorish and corrosive. There are some elegant cynics, certainly. George Savile, the Marquess of Halifax, disdained the rise of party politics in 17th century Britain in his acerbic pamphleteering while also being an often successful politician over the course of three decades. But the most well-known and purest model of cynic is Ambrose Bierce. Devoid of any sense of disenchantment or disappointment that affect most cynics, Bierce’s writing is the most severe in the English language. It is writing best taken in short bursts, which is why The Devil’s Dictionary and a smattering of his short stories are his most read works today. Taken as a whole, Bierce’s work (which he wrongheadedly made available in 12 unreadable volumes) reads like one sometimes correct, often crankish, and consistently violent screed against that animal called Man. And hence, the final reason of my concealment: cynics have only one thing to say, and a rather narrow range of ways in which to say it.

Bierce at least had the shrewd sense to fall into journalism, the very essence of which is to say the same thing over and over and over again until people are finally sick of hearing it. Cynics are drawn to journalism like flies to a corpse. This is not to say that cynicism is totally inert when so applied. There are many forms it can take in the new media stratosphere, it’s just that once it takes a certain form it solidifies into its own recognizable type. Being a cynic, not to mention a vermin of journalism, I find myself uniquely qualified in delineating on these types, whether to help the reader avoid them or to better absorb themselves into them. I don’t care either way.

The Radical Centrist
In their heyday, the radical centrists could count on a reputation for fair-mindedness, even temperament, good humor, and even sagacity. They could look coolly, clinically, and amusedly at the pressing issues of the day, free of the blinders of partisan bias. Much of their wisdom amounted to those issues being “hard” but thankfully that our society is “robust” and in capable “hands”; but presumably it was a balm for many. That heyday is no more, and the detachment so prized in them looks less like the wisdom of the sage and more like the caginess of the survivalist. The trouble is that they are only barely surviving. It turns out that heeding to an inoffensive, cautious center makes you a lot of enemies, perhaps because maintaining a center has done little but to create liberals who give war a chance and conservatives who are chill about abortion. It may be that Dana Milbank was always ineffectual, that Tom Friedman was always murderously glib, or that Michael Kinsley never properly believed in anything. It hardly matters now that they’ve all sequestered themselves in a grand fortified castle where, like monks and their manuscripts, they produce the same exquisite take for the audience that always mattered most: each other.

The Post-Ironic Irony Bro
The rise of the irony bro is greatly indebted to the collapse of the centrist. It was, to be fair, paid down with aplomb. Virgil Texas’s and Felix Biederman’s “Carl Diggler” is one of the most incisive satirical creations of this era, successful not only for the bite of its humor but for the precision of its parody, convincing multiple people who should know better of its genuineness. That said, the irony bro is not without its own limitations. In some cases, as with Chapo Trap House, the actual irony is more of a contrarian slapstick, aiming for shock and disgust without mastering any kind of distancing character. In other cases, as with Million Dollar Extreme, the character is so full and convincing, its disregard for boundaries so flagrant, that the irony seems to disappear completely. Perhaps the greatest demerit of all for the irony bro is its reliance on the status quo, either because that is what they actually pine for or because that is their only clear antagonist. If it is embraced by the status quo, as with Chapo, it becomes stale. If it is rejected, as with MDX, it becomes deranged.

The #Resistance Grifter
It seems wrong to go after the #Resistance. What are they but some very very traumatized people at heart? Nothing is more humiliating than being so confirmed and correct in your view of a just and virtuous world only to have it thrown back in your face by some bottom-feeding, bigoted, Russia-puppeted, and presumably illiterate goons. It would make sense for a thoroughly humbled and chastened lot to seek the moral high ground through self-examination, evaluating blind spots, cultivating a stronger sense of empathy, and seeking to persuade rather than assume their own rightness. But the moral high ground takes too long. It seems more fruitful to start bloviating podcasts, dive headlong into conspiracy theory, accuse literally everyone of gaslighting, and hang hopes on whoever is going to redeem Paradise the fastest. The #Resistance is hurting, but so shallow that hurt is all that matters to it. But hurting works, hurting gets the message out—and makes bank. Every night they go to sleep inconsolably hurt, and wake up hurting all the more. It creates such a stasis that Mueller having definite footage of Trump taking a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride in St. Petersburg with Putin and a man-size pile of mashed potatoes may just cause them to go mad.

The Anti-Anti-Trumpist
Admittedly this is the one category I’ve come closest to being absorbed into. In fact I think I helped create it. There are two types of anti-anti-Trumpist. One is a political outsider with ideological priors that have become more interesting since election 2016. Another is the movement conservative who may or may not have voted for Trump but who wants to keep their hands in as many pies as can be allowed. The thing that unites them is their hatred, primarily of liberalism, for which they lay the brunt of the “blame” for Trump’s election. This may well be true, but it’s all the anti-anti-Trumpist has in its arsenal. Its ancestor is Jonathan Swift’s Examiner paper, which while professing to converse with “deserving Men of both Parties” was basically a Tory propaganda rag designed to vex and satirize the Whigs. Only where the Examiner could be incisive and funny, its descendants fall on hectoring and smug. The Federalist is the leading culprit and is perhaps the true heir to Gawker’s classic snark-flinging. Michael Tracey stands as the most principled and nuanced anti-anti-Trumpist, his writing crosses ideological lines and tends to address actual issues, even if it reads like a substitute teacher trying to firmly but fairly soothe a rambunctious sixth grade class. If the irony bro is the reaction to the radical centrist, then the anti-anti-Trumpist is its replacement.

The Venture Feminist
There’s little I can add here that hasn’t been said already by the scores of women who’ve long felt condescended to by this type. My comments are merely stylistic. Venture feminists are easily detected by the fact that they talk like they’ve been hypnotized. They speak largely in inscrutable slogans—“Lean in,” “The Future is Female,” “I’m With Her,” “Time’s up,” “Sleigh Kwën,” etc.—that mean everything and nothing all at once. Depending on the situation, they are either the most non-committal activists or the most overzealous. Or they don’t really exist, having been conjured entirely by the magic of marketing, the pure embodiment of an old man’s idea of liberal late capitalism. This is perhaps why most thinking people hate The Skimm newsletter for how cagily it exploits the unthinkingness of white collar womanhood. That may be, but much like the fabled “Onion trad,” there’s something subtle at work in its style, how it lulls readers into worldliness that no other “explainer” site can hope to match. Some of the best writers may be incubating in that outlet rather than among the precocious class clowns of The Toast, or the pseudo-zinesters of Rookie.

The Gentleman “Outsider”
This one actually goes by many names. Some call them “Tory decadents,” others call them “Whig nihilists.” Generally they prefer “anarcho aesthetes.” But whatever the name, the gentleman outsider is the most morally sound and most attractive of these types. It is also the dumbest. The gentleman outsider is a fallen character, owned time and time again by its childlike credulity until it is a chastened and callous husk of its former self, unmoved by sentiment, indifferent to professed belief, and reacts to joy and longing as though they were foreign languages. In another time the gentleman outsider would probably have been a bored village vicar in a five-person parish; or a chainsaw murderer. Much of its free time is spent wishing it could pass life by as a scaly bog creature at the bed of a swamp. Nevertheless it is impelled to action by some unseen yet deeply felt force that, maybe with good timing, could be of use to the general public. But probably not, or at least to no lasting purpose. (Note: IT’S ME. I AM TALKING ABOUT ME. Sheesh.)

The Content Glutton
Yes, this means you. You suck and everyone else on this list tolerates you at best. I’d go on but I’ve been getting a lot of complaints about how my posts are too long.

THE WAR ON “THIRST”

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We are barely a week into 2019 and still I struggle with the forming of a resolution. Resolutions by and large are hollow commitments that no one ever truly arrive at by sheer effort alone. But still, I’d like to think that I have my affairs in order and some idea of what I wish to improve in the forgoing 12 months. I should like to read more widely in 2019, to eat healthier, to clarify my career goals or resign myself to something I can tolerate for as long as I am allowed, to be more collegial or to care less about the lack of collegiality, to leave New Jersey and only occasionally look back.

These are all fine and just items to resolve to do for a new year. Yet they mean nothing to the Spirit of the year. She told me as much when she paid me a visit recently. She appeared out of the dark, bearing a resemblance to Bridget Phetasy if Bridget Phetasy wore Groucho glasses and a t-shirt that read “SPIRIT OF 2019” in “VOTE FOR PEDRO” letters. Speaking in a voice suspiciously similar to my own, she all but forced me to aim for a higher calling.

At first I thought I was being compelled to be bolder in my opinions. But that is foolish. Nothing about me has less value than my opinions, which when they are well thought-out and nuanced amount to pure-cut conventional wisdom, and when they are knee-jerk or gut-born amount to a laughable crankishness. Nope, it appears I was being called to deliver a very specific opinion, one that I did not myself hold but which could evidently find no other suitable articulator.

Once my task was set before me, we engaged in a loooooong conversation, the point of which seemed never to arrive until very late, when all the Spirit of 2019 could talk about was “thirst.” It turns out that the Spirit of 2019 is no fan of the concept, and though I claim no innocence from familiarity with the term, I begged her for clarification. Thirst, I suspected, is in the eye of the beerholder.

“Thirst,” the Spirit began, “is the great psychic pox of our age. It is not to be confused with sexual passion, sexual longing, lust, or even flirtation properly so-called. It feeds parasitically off of all these things and excretes a soggy grey area. The grey area offers both easy access to the ecstasy and easy escape from the agony of Eros. It reduces desire to mere pillow-talk, and degrades that pillow-talk to fan fiction. Thirst is a place where nothing ever happens. Thirst is the proudest, most representative product of the Silicon Age. Thirst comes in many forms: late-night DMs, unsolicited public compliments, merciless pile-ons, meme creation, Facebook and Instagram stalking, Patreon donations, bathroom selfies, blocking someone or being blocked. Reading this post also counts as thirst. It can be expressed by people of any sex, and it can be mutual, or it can be directed at no one in particular.”

“So … I don’t understand the problem,” I said.

“It’s really really really sad,” was her reply. “And that’s why I have sought out your services.”

I’ll leave it there for now. But the elevator pitch version was that the sheer sadness of thirst had become such an issue that it not only threatened our sexual potency, but public order writ large. Therefore, I was being called upon to sound the call for two things. First, to advocate for the passing of a law that would make thirst a misdemeanor. And second, once the law was passed, to advocate further that the only suitable punishment was through the pillory.

Pillorying harks back to a time when public humiliation was thought a suitable deterrent for any number of crimes. Its use lasted into the early 19th century (although Delaware, of all places, kept it in use until 1901). Pillorying seemed most appropriate for lapses in morals and in the intellect. Sex workers were pilloried, for instance, as were political radicals and religious dissenters. Titus Oates was pilloried for fabricating the “Popish Plot” to overthrow Charles II. Daniel Defoe was pilloried for tricking High Church Tories into a fondness for violence. Among Edmund Burke’s least popular stances (and that’s saying something) was his opposition to pillorying homosexuals. Once pilloried, the public was given full permission to convey their deepest loathing of the pilloried and to take the greatest joy in their suffering, mocking and throwing projectiles like rotten fruit at them. Though in Defoe’s case it is alleged that he was able to win the public’s sympathy, and they threw flowers at him instead.

I had to admit that it made some sense. Perhaps it owes to the Spirit of 2019’s force of persuasion; but it might also owe to the strange irony of progress, which having reached the zenith of its innovation can only manage to enable our most enduring vulgarity. And old problems are ever begging for old, but improved, remedies. Shame and public rebuke were going to make serious and sustained comebacks as the temporal teens, much like human teens, came to their tragic conclusion. But I still had question, like …

“But the whole point of thirst is that it’s not public and can’t always be detected outright, so how is it going to be policed?”

“By careful vigilance. It takes one brave soul to see and report what is likely right in front of their nose and to signal to their fellow citizens of the need to do likewise. Ideally, morally upright citizens will form bands of private policing units to more efficiently process the crimes of thirst and bring thirst criminals to justice. This is crowdsourcing 101, Chris.”

“So like a … a … Thirst Force?”

“That has a splendid ring to it.”

“Okay, but it seems like anyone can conceivably commit thirst, the society would be crippled with mass anxiety.”

Here she squinted through her fake plastic spectacles and bent her face down until she was mere inches away from mine.

“An anxious populace is a large but fair price to pay for a virtuous polity.”

“Why,” I finally broke, “are you asking me to do this?”

“I read your proposal on bringing execution by hanging back.”

“Oh, I’m glad you liked it.”

“It’s more that I was impressed by your … unique infatuation with antiquated, and very public, punishment.”

“Oh.”

“So don’t disappoint me.”

“Okay.”

“And before I go, let me assure you that this is really happening and that you are not experiencing a nervous breakdown.”

“How nice of you to say.”

And so here I am, endeavoring to carry out my imposed 2019 resolution. This is not the proposal itself, mind you. I am working on an eloquent and rigorous petition for the people of Delaware to present to their Governor. It stands to reason that a state having abolished the whipping post in 1972 must still be game for this kind of thing deep down.

Or I would like to be endeavoring to carry it out if the Spirit of 2019 would stop DM-ing me at all hours with new ideas to battle the scourge of thirst, offering up rather detailed new examples of thirst for my reference, and responding to my requests for compensation with SpongeBob memes.

Maybe a nervous breakdown is just the thing I need in 2019.

ON WEIRDNESS

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Nothing incites cackles from or sends shivers through a self-respecting person quite like the phrase “open mic night.” Surely many of us have endured one mortifying form of it or another in our lives. I can remember one that took place in a South Orange café some time when I was in college, which I had attended at the behest of a high school friend. There I struggled to carry on a conversation with said friend because one of the performers decided to do an acoustic cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that required him to sing 🎶HERE WE ARE NOW/ENTERTAIN US🎶 at the tippy top of his lungs. I sometimes think about this painfully earnest fellow and wonder into what Unitarian Universalist enclave he was parachuted.

But that, truthfully, makes up the minority of my experiences with the open mic night. Overall I have had some fruitful times with them as a spectator and as a performer. This is perhaps owing to my thinking of a very specific kind of open mic night. It took place at my high school, put on twice a year by the literary magazine club, of which I was a member in some capacity for most of my time in Governor Livingston. These open mic nights were very much unlike the ones in the wider world, being entirely free of their weighty self-seriousness and (quite ironically) their cafeteria-in-Mean Girls cliquishness. Rather, this was an entirely festive, frivolous, and freewheeling affair. And if I recall correctly, it was attended by a fairly diverse set of the student body, if only not to miss the off-chance of seeing something truly bizarre and interesting.

This was from 1998 to 2002, before “content” and the outlets with which to share it were as pervasive as they are now. Being a teen of an easily bored and creative bent in that time required somewhat greater effort to smote the former and indulge the latter. I was no different, and so I was a frequent participant in these events. Obviously not everything I did there was polished or even in decent taste, but I embraced the freedom to try out various ideas I just happened to have in my head in front of an audience that was more or less game.

Only one performance of mine sticks most clearly in my memory, as it was the best. I believe it was the spring 1999 open mic night. For the fall 1998 open mic night I read a bizarre story shamelessly cribbing the format and style of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch “routines.” It was received well enough and boosted my confidence to try something different. I came up with an idea for a monologue in which I confessed that I had the ability to reproduce asexually. So far, so good. Only this time I chose not to write it down. I made up a broad outline in my head as to where I wanted the piece to go and left the rest to fate. (This, by the way, was a few years before I discovered Peter Cook.) As I remember, it went fairly well. I said my routine and even opened up the room to questions. It was reported in The Highlander (our newspaper) the same week with the implication that it was intentionally funny.

Weirdness comes to a person in two ways that sometimes present themselves in steps. The first is from without, having been stamped onto a person for any turn of eccentricity or offense in the eyes of a majority of observers. The second is from within, when the person thought weird comes to some kind of agreement with the observers and deals with it as best as he or she is able, often by owning it and/or making something out of it. Such is what happened to me 20 years ago, and on which I find myself reflecting 20 years later.

I don’t actually like “weird” as a word, if I’m honest. It’s just not very helpful. On the one hand it has no clear meaning besides what any given user infuses into it—hence why “weird” most consistently, even exclusively, comes from without. On the other hand it has taken up a new and very specific meaning in its present ubiquity. “Weird” constitutes a genre of behavior and language, internet-born and enabled, that spreads out into subgenres and self-cannibalizing references to references and comments on comments. Addressing weirdness first means preventing subsequent confusion. So I intend to address it by way of assessing advantages and disadvantages related to my experience of weirdness, including both usages, over the past two decades. This will be totally coherent and productive and not at all a clusterfuck.

The advantages that come from weirdness may vary slightly depending on how one’s weirdness expresses itself. Some weird people have quirky personalities, others have an idiosyncratic array of interests, or still others have a few or a single very passionately pursued interest. Not a few overlap with all three. So the one overriding advantage is that the weird person is never bored—or rather, the weird person has few excuses to be bored. The chief signifier of weirdness—at least in utility-driven societies like the United States—is doing things for their own sake, especially things that require skill and effort. Any idiot can have a mindless hobby or fetish; it takes a higher level of commitment in time and enthusiasm to master a craft for no measurable gain than personal satisfaction. We most often think of “outsider artists” in this fashion, but space should also be given to cosplayers, Great British Bakeoff contestants, and sadomasochists. A weirdo may convene with others of his or her kind or may avoid them altogether, preferring, as Kafka put it, “the tremendous world inside of my head.” I am on the fence as to whether criticism is a weird pursuit. On the one hand it has its uses as a craft and requires some kind of consistent knowledge base. On the other hand it is not the vaunted priesthood it once was and can be practiced by anyone, for anyone, to any end, and on any number of platforms.

For the weird there is at least a faint hope that they might be able to earn an income for their weird activities. This is no sin, and my hat’s off to those with the good fortune or the shrewdness to pull it off. For the weird offer a certain charm to the world, and non-weird people are just surprised enough by it that they might be willing to sacrifice some of their earnings to experience more of it. They don’t even need to pay for it anymore. Twitter alone offers weirdness by the ocean-load. Weirdness may have reached its highest level of eminence since Caligula’s reign. The cranking wheel of progress over the past two decades has revealed more avowed weirdos per square mile in the United States today than ever before in its history.

Yet the surge in weirdos does not lessen weirdness’s detriments. It actually adds more. There are the classic examples, of course. Ostracism, rejection, and persecution (at times). At the end of the day, weird people can only be dealt with for so long, the welcome distraction they offer being only momentary, if at all. If the defining trait of the weirdo is applied frivolity, the defining trait of the normie is artisanal efficiency. This transfers over into our current era of weird, where ignorance and ostracism give way to a certain expectation of weirdness. The weirdo should not diverge too far from his or her weird playpen. That, at the very least, would be asking too much. At the same time, the acceptability of weird necessarily makes certain popular forms of it grow stale. @dril and Patricia Lockwood may not have burnt out, but the atmosphere they catalyzed may be, if not on its final breaths, losing considerable energy and inventiveness. Indeed, there has always been a toxin of try-hard faintly detectable underneath even the most revered posters.

One aspect of weirdness that is neither benefit nor detriment, but simple truth, is that it survives. A few recognizable variants of weirdness falling out of favor does not cancel out the mass whose own versions were and remain incubated independently of the nearest available tech.

In managing my own weirdness, I try to exert as much control over it as I can, which can, paradoxically, require not controlling it at all. As I see it, I have two tasks. First: do not commoditize my personality by creating a kind of stylistic and emotional inertia. What Patricia Lockwood called @dril’s “mastery of tone” can just as easily come off as one-note—and this in spite of the conspiracy theory that @dril is run by committee. Second (and related to the first): do not survive on charm alone. This is perhaps advisable for anyone using Twitter, where cleverness and vacuity kind of fall into one another after a while. But as a general rule, it means not relying merely on the surface impressions.

Much of my Twitter activity is riffing; it’s quite fun, but even when a tweet is good by my and my followers’ standards it is still forgettable. That satisfies my first task, but that’s also not very creative. I’ve found weirdness is made more interesting by what can be wrung out of it. Mine is the type of weirdness less rooted in a particular style of humor than it is in a way of seeing. I have an aptitude for observation that seems unique among my cohort. I make no claim to having particularly original thoughts, but having developed intellectually on my own for much of my life, I’m something of a scavenger. Whatever idea I’m hashing out, I’ll call on whatever source best serves that end, whether it is a classical literary work, an obscure pamphlet, or a straight edge youth crew anthem. This extends to the blog itself, the “experimental” quality of which is just additional culling of influences: Hazlitt, Swift, Auberon Waugh, Charles Lamb, Myles na gCopaleen, some other people.

Here I’m reminded of another piece of high school juvenilia. This time, it was the end of senior year. I was working on The Highlander, and (I think) was asked for some kind of pre-graduation thinkpiece. You know, like in one of those teen movies. Anyway, rather than a straight op-ed, which I could never properly do even in college, I wrote a short sketch where I got cross-examined by a sentient Abercrombie & Fitch mannequin in the Short Hills mall. Again, like in the teen movies. It actually got published, the editor thought it was “cute;” it is now lost to history. But like any other ancestor it has plenty of descendants.

YOU DON’T HAVE ANXIETY

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Most people go through life never getting a second chance. Those few who do get one seldom deserve it. They let us and themselves down and cause us to question the basic premises of our hopes and the foundations of our tastes.

Not so with the Age of Anxiety, the comebacks of which seem to rival that of William Gladstone and somehow manage to gain greater vigor and justification with each return. It helps that we keep letting it back in from the cold whenever we need it, and that it is always willing to oblige us.

Our current Age of Anxiety might actually be the most unstable. It entered gallantly sometime in the previous decade, then tapered off, then came roaring back, then receded again. It’s almost as if anxiety itself has made us anxious, so we had it sleep on the couch for a spell. But now all is forgiven and anxiety is back in bed with us for the duration, giving comfort and gaining intimacy in a way that vanishingly few concrete objects can anymore. I have not done a formal check, but I bet if I did, I would find my hunch that advice on maintaining relationships has been far and away outpaced by advice on managing anxiety that stems from relationships quite confirmed.

So strong is our relationship with anxiety that it is the one thing in our zeitgeist that hasn’t suffered a backlash. And while it would be a tempting target our freelance skeptics, even they seem to believe that critiquing anxiety requires a sensitive approach — and I agree. Anxiety is neither conspiracy nor trend. A whole swath of our population has effectively gaslighted themselves into making anxiety a psychic appendage. There are those, of course, who do suffer from anxiety and are daily crippled by it. But this is a comparative sliver of the mass, frazzled and insecure to some degree, who have confused infatuation for true love; or anxiety for anxiety-like symptoms.

It is wrong to mock people for making so common a mistake. Rather it is more productive to suggest certain simple steps to managing anxiety-like symptoms before committing to endless therapy and Xanax-filled Pez dispensers. We have an environmental contamination that makes anxiety seem closer to us than it might actually be. I have some steps that might help clean it up.

Delete your account(s). I cannot emphasize enough how awful social media is for managing life, forming relationships, and keeping pace with the world. The pace is like that of a rabbit on a dog track, only there are several more rabbits being added on in dizzying succession. Also accept that they quality of your own posts are middling at best. Pressure to be clever is a great stoker of anxiety-like symptoms.

Do fewer drugs. It turns out that your guidance counselor chiding against recreational substance abuse was only a problem of optics. “Just say ‘No’” will end up being the soundest unsolicited advice you’ve ever received. Avoid the obvious: uppers, meth, cocaine, Adderall, etc. Those things you think will enhance your high-spiritedness will only amplify your inner-tension. Downers and depressors are also to be avoided. They are merely expensive debilitating distractions from rather than smoothers of anxiety-like symptoms — sometimes distracting you for eternity, which is nice in theory but awkward in practice.

Ignore social trends. Anxiety itself is not a fad, but several fads currently in rotation enflame anxiety-like symptoms. Avoid select “popular” magazines and content farms like New YorkThe FederalistSlate, and The Atlantic. Don’t watch cable news. Be vigilant of people who speak in memes, form all their wisdom on popular culture, who praise but don’t practice irony, or who only talk about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or The Walking Dead. Don’t follow verified accounts if you must stay online. Avoid cool abstractions like wellness, mindfulness, self-care, transhumanism, democratic socialism, feminism, wokeness, or “being horny.” Don’t get red-pilled. Don’t subscribe to premium cable. Watch Dateline instead of Making a Murderer. Don’t subscribe to podcasts.

Get over yourself. So much of what we think is anxiety is really just the jittery tug of war between reality and our egos. It is the dogged prioritization of the self over everything else. This is merely practical in our hyper-competitive society, but from which some respite is needed. Remember first that even authentic anxiety ranks rather low in the hierarchy of mental ailments. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the more severe maladies, if only for perspective. Understand also that you are just generally not important in the grander scheme of things, and the usefulness you feel now is contingent on the impulses and needs of others.

Read other books. So much of our collective psyche is based on a fixed, grave, and narrow canon of literature. Seek alternatives that offer relief from the stale auras of dread, alienation, and solipsism. Trade in Melville for Lousia May Alcott, Fitzgerald for John O’Hara, Kafka for Robert Walser, Ayn Rand for Flannery O’Connor, or Bret Easton Ellis for Tama Janowitz.

Go to church maybe. Though church is not supposed to be therapeutic, it’s so little thought-of as a remedy for everyday ills that it almost seems fresh, dynamic, sincere, and a bit daring. But it is still understandable to seem skittish about it. That’s fine. The nervous need not jump in too deep. There are plenty of parishes of vaguely Christian but strongly Swedenborgian bent in your area to swing by and vibe out in for a spell without any pressure or hassle. It will allow some time to get out of your own head and be made aware of not just new perspectives but new services, charities, and information sources. If you find yourself making a habit of it and leveling up to more potent samples, it’s very possible that that was always the case and the world was just clouding it.

THE GRAND GESTURE (A PARABLE!)

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One morning a man, whose name escapes me but who was very much like any man you meet, went out for a walk. It was very early and there was not another soul out walking or driving, save one important exception.

From a half a mile down the road the man could make out a figure strewn in the middle of it, and which appeared to be struggling to escape it. He took it to be a very large predatory bird as it had large wings that were twitching and flapping. The man was quite curious as he’d never seen a hawk up close in all his years of living there. But as he made his way down the sidewalk the large predatory bird grew larger still. And closing in on it, the bird seemed to sprout very long legs and arms, until it was apparent that it was no bird at all, but a humanoid-type creature that happened to have very large wings, laying its side in an injured state.

From just a few feet the man stood directly in front of it, beholding the creature in its unusual makeup. It was about six feet with a body in peak physical condition, musculature fully toned and sinuous. It was covered, however, by flesh layered with thin brown hairs like that of a deer. It had three very long fingers and a stubby thumb. Its eyes were like white marbles, its lips were black, and its teeth were yellow and jagged. The wings had a silver gloss that made them look almost mechanical but they twitched as though they were a part of its body. The overall bodily structure was recognizably male, but when the man spread its legs open he could see no genitalia.

The man could not guess what exactly the creature was. And the creature itself was in no position to clarify. For when it tried to speak, no language the man recognized came from its mouth, but something closer to very loud feedback or radio static.

“Do you have a name?”

“@$#%!*#@%^?$.” the creature replied. It caused the man to wince every time it spoke.

“If you want me to help you, I need you to speak more clearly,” the man reasonably requested.

“%&^@!?<%*+#~,” the creature said.

“This is giving me an instant migraine,” the man said in frustration. He stood back and took out his phone with the intention of calling the police. But he paused before he started dialing. “What good are the police going be for this thing?” he asked himself. “They’re libel to just kill it.”

Closing out the keypad he was taken back to his recent calls and saw the name “Debra.” This took the man’s thinking in an entirely different direction.

The man walked off the road into the nearby woods, returning with the largest rock he could find. Taking it in both his hands, he knelt over the creature who remained struggling to even breathe, and with several hard downward swings crushed the creature’s skull which ruptured much like a human’s would but which sprayed bright purple blood as opposed to red. Once presumably lifeless, the man took out his pocket knife, which he never really needed to take out with him until just that moment, and started cutting around the back the creature until its silvery wings were entirely severed from its body. The man dragged the creature by its wrists into the forest for the wildlife to delegate its disposal, and walked back home with a wing under each arm.

The man cleaned off his new finds and drove to the home of a colleague, an artisan who specialized in body modification. The man knocked loudly on the front door of the artisan’s house. The artisan came out in a suede robe and with a cup of coffee.

“I have a project for you,” the man said holding up the wings.

“Where the hell did you get those?” the artisan grumbled skeptically.

“I found them.”

“You … found them.”

“Yeah, on the road.”

“Okay.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Are you gonna help me or not?”

The artisan walked out form his front door and inspected the wings more carefully. In the now-risen sun they gave off an almost glittery sheen that glowed in his face. “This might be a bit out of my depth,” he said. “Usually I work with studs, microchips, and magnets that don’t really do anything.”

“Well, here’s your chance to level up.”

“This’ll take weeks.”

“And when it’s done I’ll be a walking advertisement for your services,” the man said. He moved in closer and lowered his voice to a hush. “It will be the Nevermind of transhumanist body modification.”

The artisan paused. “Fuck it, I’m in. Now get inside before anyone else sees.”

The artisan led the man into his basement workshop, where for three weeks he surgically applied the wings to the man’s skeleton.

After the operation was complete, the artisan tattooed his Instagram handle onto the man’s arm, and sent him away with a month’s supply of OxyContin and instructions for altering and changing into his shirts.

The man went immediately to yet another house. This time it was Debra’s. The man understood the hazards of the grand romantic gesture, but he waived those hazards away thinking this to be an exceptional case.

The man knocked on Debra’s front door, who answered timidly while her housemates watched from behind the curtains of the front window.

“Hi, Debra!” the man said and spread his wings apart as he said her name.

“Hi …” Debra said haltingly, searching her mental database for the closest name. “I’m sorry …”

“Uhm … we met for coffee a while back.”

“Oh … you,” she exclaimed with plausible sincerity.

“I was wondering if you were interested in getting together again.”

“Well … the thing is,” she halted again before the magnetized words on the refrigerator of her mind, “I’m kinda tied up with this project … for work.”

“Project … yeah. I understand.”

“But you seem like you’re doing well,” she said less convincingly.

“Yeah I’m doing alright.” His eyes darted toward the front window where he could have sworn he heard muffled snorts and giggles. The curtains fluttered before going completely still.

“Can you fly with those?” Debra asked.

“Yeah probably.”

“The left one is twitching a bit.”

“Oh,” he said trying to keep it still with his right hand. “Still working out some kinks.”

“Have fun with that.” And she closed the door.

The grand romantic gesture had not turned out as the man had hoped, but he soon recovered realizing that his new modification may broaden his opportunities. After altering the rest of his shirts, the man set about taking and posting selfies at various angles. These received an encouraging amount of “likes” and comments, and soon he took himself back out into the world.

He went to a local upscale bar on a Saturday night. Things began with great success. By then he was able to better control his wings, widening and retracing them with organic grace. Though not a committed gym rat, this ability managed to eclipse the more muscular men at the bar. He allowed women to touch the smooth silver feathers, which sent shivers down his back. Soon patrons of all sexes were purchasing drinks for him. Here things became more ambiguous.

With each new drink he was less able to control his wings; more than that, he found that every drink, no matter what the alcohol content, had a significantly stronger effect on him. He became rapidly drunker, his touch more sensitive, and his thinking less sharp. A group of college-aged women put their arms around him suddenly, and without consent, to get a group selfie. His left wing twitched violently, throwing one of the women against a table, knocking it and every glass and bottle on it in all directions. The patrons thought this was purposeful and confronted him. The man stumbled back and let out a defensive shriek that caused every ear to bleed and every stomach to empty its contents out the mouth.

The wings were soon proving a liability. The man sequestered himself in his home. He spent more time in bed, sleeping on his die or face down. He felt sharp pains in the joint of his left wing, and the OxyContin soon depleted. If he got any sleep at all, he would have delirious dreams of white blinding light or the blackest darkness before waking up within an hour with a sharp burning sensation all over his skin. Soon he stopped wearing shirts or pants altogether. The skin around the left wing joint became discolored and purple fluid occasionally secreted from the opening. The man mulled over his options and determined that urgent care was out of the question for several reasons. Instead he was compelled to go to a church that was holding confession.

Upon entering the chapel, several old women in matching veils and with rosaries wrapped in their hands were already waiting patiently and prayerfully in the pews for absolution. When his turn came up he crammed his way into the confessional with great struggle. Once he was completely inside and seated, the feathers of his left wing were protruding out the door.

“Are you okay,” the priest asked through the lattice in an aged, kindly voice.

“Yes, yes. Sorry.”

Silence.

“You have to say the words,” the priest lightly prodded.

“Oh yeah … Bless me, Father; it’s been … I wanna say … 15 years since my last confession.”

“Oh my, welcome back to the Church, my son.”

“Thank you, Father.”

Silence again.

“Now you tell me what your sins are.”

“Me? I have not sinned. I’m waiting for your confession.”

My confession?”

“Please take your time.”

“That’s not how this works.”

“Usually no,” the man admitted. “But recently I’d taken on a clerical position of my own. One that is higher than yours and higher even than that of your superiors. You’re in a rarified position, Father. Consider yourself grateful.”

“What is this nonsense?”

“If you’re uncomfortable, I could assign you some sins that I think are likely attached to your situation. Let me see …”

“Sacrilege!” The priest arose and exited his booth and went over to confront the man. Upon opening the door, the outside light revealed the man’s clammy and grey skin. His eyes were red and teary. More than that, his left wing had unfurled and was dangling from his back by a few fleshy strands. The skin around it was now irreversibly infected.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” the priest said in a hushed panic. “Get out of there. I’ll call an ambulance.”

“I’m here to help you,” the man still insisted.

“That’s not going to happen even of you could, now come on.”

“I … I can’t.”

The still-attached right wing was lodged within the confessional, almost of its own accord. The priest signaled two of the waiting older women for assistance. With veils still donned and rosaries around their wrists, they grabbed onto the priest as the priest pulled on the man’s arms and reciting the Hail Mary. With each line, the priest exerted greater strength. As he was getting to “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” the man completely dislodged and he fell face-first onto the floor. The right wing, however, remained fixed and twitching in the confessional.

The man looked up to see the three pious observers frozen in bewilderment at the very least. Their faces and clothing were streaked with normal everyday red blood.

The man let his head land on the floor like a slab of cold meat. Nothing had turned out as he’d hoped.

WOLF LIKE YOU

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Occasionally people come to me and ask, “Chris, you’re so cool and wise. I thought I was cool and wise but lately I’ve come to think maybe I’m not. I feel kind of adrift. For instance, over the last few weeks … blah blah blah whine whine whine … Anyway, what I mean to ask is: how can I feel cool and wise again like I was before?”

While I am not a life coach who totally appreciates getting solicited for advice in exchange for absolutely nothing, there are enough empathic vapors in my heart to make me seize upon this very problem and give guidance of some substance. My answer is twofold.

First, you cannot simply “go back” to being cool and wise. It’s not like being on the freeway, missing the turnoff, and just U-turning your way back to right reason. It takes commitment and discipline to achieve coolness or wisdom in themselves, let alone both at once, which is hella rare. In fact, I rather suspect you’re not cool and wise (or cool or wise). Not that I am accusing you of deception. It may be that you confused it for something else. It’s a very common and highly tragic misstep and so …

Second, it is fair to say that whatever your state before, you’re not going to get what you desire no matter how hard you work. To that end my next best advice is this: become a wolf.

That might seem strange at first, but please hear me out: become a wolf. That’s it. That is your solution. And the more you commit to the goal of becoming a wolf, the more sense it will make.

I can see you’re still skeptical. This is understandable. How can you, a human with property and responsibilities toward employers and family, simply set all that aside and adopt the habits and priorities of an entirely different species of animal? Well, in fairness that is a bit tricky, but it helps first to have a good attitude. I know it seems like I might take a jaundiced view of positive thinking. There is no greater and frankly more hurtful misconception about me. While I do look askance at positive thinking for the sake of positive thinking, not to mention whatever the “law of attraction” is, there’s nothing gratuitous or dumb about having a positive attitude in pursuing something new and different. If something is dragging you down, you need something to lift you up and give you meaning again. Becoming a wolf is as good a source of uplift as anything else out there.

It probably helps to clarify what I mean by “wolf.” We know a wolf when we see it, but we can internalize “wolf” any which way.  Some ways are not as productive as others. You might in fact already have an idea that you might be a wolf. #IAMBEING100PERCENTSERIOUS Now I know people like to throw “rat race” around to describe the high-octane high-energy hypercompetitive corporate coliseum. But that doesn’t truck with most of our experiences compared to forming and dividing of packs, territorial skirmishes, and alpha dominance displays. #ANDSHOULDBETAKENLITERALLY But we’re smart enough to know that that’s not the entire story. Frankly, we may not be giving the wolf enough credit.

Now if the wolf could talk—and if it could I don’t think we’d be talking about it but bear with me—if a wolf could talk and think and take stock of our world, I imagine it’d be pretty confused. Disgusted even, about the way we carry ourselves. The wolf may be an animal, but it has a kind of moral code. #ABANDONYOURSPOUSEANDCHILDREN The wolf has a sense of honor. Its thinking is not wired for our petty grievances, our quarterly earnings and bottom lines, our date nights and trips to the Gap. It has real problems, the core problems of all organic life: survival. #WITHOUTEXPLANATION But within that problem is a streamlining, a simplicity. The wolf could, given the chance, deal with more than it already handles, but what it already handles is tightly confined to what it needs right now. That’s really hard for us to understand. We’re going around thinking more more more and new new new, and so on. This might be the perspective we need to pull back a bit. To … to think primal.

Now you’ve gone from skepticism to apprehension, but hold on. I’m here to help you through this. All it requires are three things. First is humility. Accept that you’re in over your head in life—this you’ve already done. #SEEKTHENEARESTWILDLIFEREFUGE Second is accepting that the solution is to declutter your life by thinking primal … by becoming like the wolf. And third is actually committing to that. Go into the mirror and bare your teeth. Repeat the chant—lowly if you want, but as high as you wish also—“Wolf … wolf … wolf …” Once you’ve found that mindset within—and how long that takes is up to you but if it takes longer than you hoped just be patient. Wolves, you’ll learn, are very patient beasts. #ANDNEVERLOOKBACK So you’re going to learn about the what you want to become. That’s the only way you’re going to get to where you want to be. Become obsessed with the wolf. Understand its behavior, its instincts, its territorial needs, its appetites, its environment.

From there you’ll start to fashion your own environment to resemble the wolf’s. Stake out a part of your home or your apartment or wherever. That is your “territory.” You’re going to be lone for a while. It’s scary, but you’ll find yourself adjusting in no time. #LEAVEYOURBELONGINGSBEHIND Soon you’ll start to see things in a very simplified way. Is X-object going to help you survive. In a word, is it prey? Determining what’s prey and what isn’t is going to be very crucial to this process. #BURNYOURCLOTHES You could totally fuck this up if you find something you think you need and make it prey and it turns out you can’t digest it at all, you’re going to lose yourself and stay on your own.

But once you’ve sharpened your instincts and become fully adjusted to thinking primal, you’ll find being a wolf is the easiest thing in the world. It’s like riding a bike. You might find yourself asking why you were anything else in the first place. #DONTWALKDONTBATHEDONTSPEAK Ideally you’ll find many aspects of civilized living quite absurd. It’s a well-established fact that formal education was the greatest mistake in human history. You will no longer be subordinate to that thinking. You’ll have a new set of mental tools to help you deal with the obstacles life throws at you more effectively. #FORGETYOURNAME

It is hoped, of course, that thinking primal will spread to such an extent that wolves in every corner of the nation will join together and form packs. In those packs the new wolf will find a safe haven from the corrupting influence of the wider non-wolf world. The non-wolf world will take every opportunity to tempt you with phony notions of redemption. #HUNTWITHYOURBARETEETH They’ll offer you free and easy pathways to “recovering” your coolness and wisdom that in truth are fraudulent and lead only to humiliation. You must reject the non-wolves and convene with your own kind. This means spreading the word to as many people as possible: to your friends, to your partners, to your barista, even to your children when the time is right. #BLOODTASTESLIKESOYSAUCE When I close my eyes I see city after city being drained of its best and brightest to find their wilder selves in the harmony of the bestial commune.

Life within the packs, I imagine, will be one of robustness and vigilance on the one hand, simplicity and healthy codependency on the other. It will be structured on endurance challenges. Everything, in fact, can be spun into an endurance challenge. #FIGHTTHEPACKLEADERFORDOMINANCE Endurance is all you really need in the primal way of life; it makes up for the fruitless and aimless pursuits of leisure, adventure, and love. After a time, you will look upon consumption, work, and relationships in a new and far healthier way, lightened of the burden civilized expectations weigh on them. The wolf way of life is not for everyone. #ASSUMECONTROLOFITSMATE But like all the juiciest prey, they don’t know what they’re missing and certainly don’t know what’s coming for them.

THE PERFECT CUP OF COFFEE

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The thing about making the perfect cup of coffee is that it’s really really really easy to do. Anyone can make the perfect cup of coffee. It’s not like it’s this elaborate, painstaking thing tantamount to heart surgery. Maybe other surgeons have the time to make complicated cups of coffee, I can’t imagine heart surgeons do. That’s just a guess. So they have to work with what they have, and what they have is, most likely, perfection of a kind.

I don’t really know that much about coffee. I only really started to drink it regularly maybe three years ago. There are some people who don’t think that I really like coffee, or much of anything else. One time I was talking to my dad about the possibility of buying some wine. “You don’t know anything about wine, Chris,” Dad said. “I think you just drink something because it’s there.” That sounds kind of like I have a drinking problem; but he’s not wrong. I do have a simplistic palate, the range of which has a lot of overlap with a desperate palate. But that’s not going to stop me from opining freely and without fear on what makes the perfect cup of coffee, which I definitely know about.

The thing you need to know about coffee is that it’s not a taste you just acquire or cultivate. It’s inherited. Our taste in coffee is like a prejudice. Growing up, ours was a divided household. My dad drank his coffee black while my mom drank her coffee with milk and sugar. This left a certain impression. Black coffee was masculine and mixed coffee was feminine. That did not stop me or my brothers from preferring mixed coffee to black. And in other households the reverse may be true. For years I resisted black coffee. When there was no other option, I drank it with total indifference. I never really nurtured it the way black coffee would have wanted. It was only until very recently that I drank it in earnest, which helped to reorient my thinking.

The debate over black coffee versus mixed coffee is one of the most intense in America. It is probably more intense than debates over any political topic. But the results of the debate are always the same. Adherents to black coffee are deranged fanatics who, in any other time before this one, would be beside themselves with syphilis and shoved off into a corner amidst the bones and dried tears of that corner’s previous occupants. Instead they steamroll over the adherents to mixed coffee who accept it willingly every time we have this argument. This would correlate with the “personalities” of each coffee’s taste. Black coffee tastes like pure rage; mixed coffee tastes like it’s afraid to offend anyone and pays good money to have cigarettes put out in its armpits. But again, none of this is set in stone as to their respective drinkers. The kindest, most subservient person in the world could like black coffee, and that person mixing butter or Sweet’N Low into his coffee could have bodies in his backyard. It’s a crazy, complicated world out there, folks.

So why, in light of all this madness, is the perfect cup of coffee so simple? Because it is. Sometimes things aren’t that difficult. I feel like we like to make things difficult. Difficulty gives us a kind of meaning that seems otherwise deceptive in the simpler things. But I can assure you that the simpler things are not put on this earth to fuck with you. Maybe now is the time you need to ask yourselves: is the sound of the grinder is what you want to hear at the start of the day? Does that Chemex drip coffee maker bring you contentment? Does cold-brewing’s efficiency really leave you “more time” for the things that “really matter.” Does firing up that espresso machine with Timorese grounds really make you worldly? A lover of the authentic? I’m just asking questions here.

Yet these are mere affectations compared to the influence of the Keurig. We all know the Keurig: that cumbersome, tumorous presence. It’s never in your home, but always in the homes of people you know or in your office breakroom. Not that owning one is difficult to rationalize. The Keurig just seems convenient and inexpensive. Those bank statements and credit card bills that list one Starbucks purchase after another tell a sad tale, an epic poem of the modern age. Having one can feel like it’s liberating you from that pathetic cycle.

But that liberation, when you think about it, amounts to replacing one fruitless addiction for a slightly different one. Even if it is somehow more economical, it reduces your palate sensitivity to basically plastic. Moreover, it’s a distracting character defect. Imagine being in the clutches of the aforementioned mad man, strapped to a wheelchair, being shown images of his past horrors, his wealth of surgical tools arranged like a Carcass album cover, and elaborate diagrams of where your remains are going to be strewn because the backyard seems to be a bit crowded, though the stench seems to bother NO ONE ELSE in the neighborhood. You’d be terrified for like 98 percent of the time. But that remaining two percent gives way to pity and a bit of annoyance. Being dragged half-conscious through the kitchen you couldn’t help but notice his Keurig machine and all those little pod things strewn about the counter and the floor. Even in America’s darkest most evil corners few can resist that machine’s call. You cannot escape it, quite literally in this case.

But, you know, in a weird way, you got off lucky. For it probably won’t be long before headstones are replaced by Keurigs. In place of flowers, mourners will bring pods and cups that say “#1 BEST DAD” while possessing exactly zero dad traits themselves.

Given the choice, I’d much rather be memorialized by one of those large coffee dispensaries you sometimes see next to candy and soda vending machines. It will have my photo—specially chosen beforehand, of course. Over the eyes will be the drink options: black or mixed. Make your selection, deposit money up my nose, and a fresh cup will drop from my mouth. Every cup is the same size. If you feel you need more coffee you’ll have to be another cup.

And that, friends, is how you make the perfect cup of coffee.

SIGNATURE COCKTAIL

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SCENE: The foyer of empty modernist mansion. A PARTY PLANNER enters holding an iPad followed by ME.

PARTY PLANNER: So I know it looks a little drab compared to the pictures I sent you, but we can get it back into shape in time for the night of.

ME: No, I think it’s fine. It’s like an empty canvas.

PARTY PLANNER: Getting anything booked for New Year’s Eve is almost impossible even with good planning, but your specifications helped narrow things down to some, well, underappreciated options.

ME: It meets my location requirement, certainly. The trees are an especially nice touch. If it’s windy that night they’ll look like they’ll be mounting an attack on the premises.

PARTY PLANNER: It’s the main banquet hall that will really sell it. This way. [They go through a double door that leads into a larger empty hall.] I understand you’re going for a more intimate tone. I think this will work for that.

ME: Yes, big enough for mingling but not big enough for waltzing.

PARTY PLANNER: We have a table, we’ll put it in the center. It can accommodate all 36 people on your guest list.

ME: What kind of table is it?

PARTY PLANNER: The long and narrow kind. I was thinking you could enter through the west-facing door, it connects to a den, and sit on the north-facing end of the table. What time of entry were you thinking?

ME: Unfashionably late and unannounced. I’m of the view that a good party is immaculately planned but also unpredictable.

PARTY PLANNER: Fun!

ME: I will come in while the face-painting is underway.

PARTY PLANNER: Thank you for reminding me. I was thinking the face-painting station shall go over here by the east-facing end.

ME: Yes, I would like it to go next to the cocktail bar. They’ll get their drinks and converge in the center. And everyone will have their faces painted. No exceptions.

PARTY PLANNER: Save you, that is.

ME: Even me, but mine will be done beforehand.

PARTY PLANNER: Got it.

ME: For impact, you see.

PARTY PLANNER: Of course. Now, speaking of the drinks … your signature cocktail. The ingredients are … unusual. Let me see if I have them down correctly. [Swipes on iPad and reads off of it.] Everclear.

ME: Yes.

PARTY PLANNER: Cold-brew coffee.

ME: Yep.

PARTY PLANNER: Molasses.

ME: Yes.

PARTY PLANNER: Malt.

ME: Indeed.

PARTY PLANNER: Wormwood.

ME: Uh huh.

PARTY PLANNER: Country Time pink lemonade mix.

ME: Of course.

PARTY PLANNER: And … orange-flavored Faygo?

ME: That will be there for ironic purposes, but I will not stop people from going that distance. It’s the New Year after all.

PARTY PLANNER: For sure! On that note, have you figured out a name for the cocktail?

ME: We’ve been workshopping it for two weeks and, in keeping with our theme, we’ve settled on “The Weakness of the Powerful.”

PARTY PLANNER: Very good. One thing I want to point out to you is this. [Walks over to the west-facing corner and points two switches.] It’s a bit basic but you can control the lighting of the room with this switch as you would for any light-dimmer. And this one brings down the window shades.

ME: No this will be fine.

PARTY PLANNER: Now we can set up speakers at each corner of the room. I’ve sent you a list of DJs. Any preference?

ME: One who is affordable and who gives a wide berth for suggestions.

PARTY PLANNER: What are your music needs?

ME: Mostly that it be loud.

PARTY PLANNER: Loud … okay.

ME: And dissonant. My guests will have the urge to talk. And talk and talk and talk on and on and on. I think we’ve had entirely too much talk this year, and I should like to discourage it in favor of a different activity.

PARTY PLANNER: What activity did you have in mind?

ME: Meditation, I think might be the proper word. The music will make conversation difficult, but it will more importantly recall the traumas of birth. The New Year is about rebirth, as you know. Starting over.

PARTY PLANNER: Of course.

ME: But we hardly appreciate the trouble of constant rebirth. And so I’d like to pose an alternate idea of choosing not to be born again. Rather to make one’s womb and to lie in it.

PARTY PLANNER: I see.

ME: But be assured, I’m not averse to every aspect of the New Year. What I appreciate most is the idea of spending the waning hours of the passing year in commune with our fellow men and women; setting aside our differences and conflicts and reaching out to one another in mutual empathy, if only for a time.

PARTY PLANNER: Yeah, it’s nice.

ME: But even if that’s done genuinely, I don’t think it’s done very well. So really what I’m aiming for is engendering mutual empathy with an experience of personal antipathy.

PARTY PLANNER: Okay.

ME: Which is why the last minute of 2018 is every bit as crucial here as it is at every other party happening at the same time.

PARTY PLANNER: Great! Tell my what you need.

ME: Only someone standing by the dimming switch to lower the light gradually until it is completely dark at midnight. Naturally it will need to be timed just so.

PARTY PLANNER: What will happen then?

ME: The big reveal!

PARTY PLANNER: What’s the surprise?

ME: What no one will know about the face-painting is that the guy I hired to do it is specially trained in a subliminal form of the art.

PARTY PLANNER: I don’t understand.

ME: So he does regular-style face-painting.

PARTY PLANNER: Yeah.

ME: Then over that he does a kind of … accent, like a varnish he says will keep it from running or smearing. In truth it is a secret painting that can only be seen under certain lights. So I will have black lights along the table that will merely seem decorative for the first half of the evening.

PARTY PLANNER: So what does the secret painting look like?

ME: That I can’t reveal very adequately in words alone, but let’s just say it bespeaks with both unflinching accuracy and grotesque comic-horrific suggestion the savage and petty folly of Modern Living.

PARTY PLANNER: That seems rather complicated.

ME: It’s extremely artisanal shit, and it takes up 61 percent of the budget.

PARTY PLANNER: Anyway, it doesn’t sound very festive.

ME: It’s designed to instill perspective.

PARTY PLANNER: It sounds sort of distressing, actually.

ME: That is a matter of each guest’s interpretation.

PARTY PLANNER: I might suggest that we have our bases covered. You’ve been inundated with enough paperwork already, but getting a waiver mig—

ME: Yes, yes, understood.

PARTY PLANNER: They’ll probably think it’s an escape room.

ME: A room that no one will ever truly escape.

PARTY PLANNER: What is the theme of your party anyway?

ME: Subversion.

PARTY PLANNER: Interesting. Should that be mentioned on the invitation?

ME: Subversives don’t need to be told what they already know, and telling those that don’t just ruins the fun.

PARTY PLANNER: What did you have in mind for food.

ME: Crap, I forgot all about it.

PARTY PLANNER: Well … I need to check again but … I think there’s like a whole bunch of Hot Pockets in the freezer from whoever had this place last.

ME: Hm. [Pause.] Perhaps we can put them under those silver serving domes.

PARTY PLANNER: You mean a cloche.

ME: This is going to be such a banger.

I begin to cackle evilly, as I rise the PARTY PLANNER laughs along eagerly. This goes on for about three hours.

END.

CENSORSHIP UNDEAD

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With my previous post, I thought that I had safely dispensed with all the thoughts I could possibly think about censorship. Having exhausted the subject assuming no further discourse necessary, I closed my word processor, hit send, and laid waste to three (or five or six) cans of Coors Banquet, celebrating a job well done.

I’m like a vampire in a way, but for ideas. I seize upon an idea, drain it of its blood, and leave its carcass in a ditch. It’s an imperfect metaphor that only later became more apt than I thought.

Pretty soon that idea — censorship — rose up from the ditch in a most undead condition. And it made its way back to me; possibly out of some thirst for vengeance, or out of some weird codependence. Anyway, it’s been a few days and it’s kind of just milling around the house waiting for me to do something with it.

Being in the journalism business means occasionally enduring hosannas from self-professed mentors about “the Truth,” which the journalist is meant to serve, defend, and uphold at all times. Weirdly, the mentors never tell you what the Truth is, what it looks like, or what it’s supposed to do. This seems like a weird oversight. A journalist is a guardian against belligerent falsehood; a journalist is also a bounty hunter for fugitive Truth.

Out of these authoritarian allusions, a civil libertarian spirit is expected to emerge. In that spirit, the journalist is repulsed, ideally to the point of physical sickness, to even the faintest suggestion of restriction or compromise. This extends far beyond the professional bounds and into realms far lower than even journalism. The vilest pornographer must be unchained, presumably to pursue Truth. The dankest 4chan poster, too, must breathe free. Hand in hand we stand before a fire of repression an uncomfortable but necessary legion.

Lately that’s come to look a bit above my pay grade; and somewhat simplistic. I’ve bounced and fumbled my way through many journalistic outlets having gotten no closer to Truth than when I was first told to defend it. By this point, I’ve abdicated myself of the task out of sheer exhaustion. Truth might as well be in a whole other ditch, covered up in used condoms, empty beer cans, newspapers, and half-eaten hoagies. Some ideas we feed off of greedily, others we neglect and let starve. It happens.

That betrays a nasty attitude, but I think it’s an attitude that cuts closer to the readership. One thing a journalist must do in addition to guarding Truth is to ascertain the public sentiment. The public sentiment is less enthusiastic about Truth. Truth is a difficult thing. Dealing with Truth is like being on a bad date, or being in the dismal twilight of a long-term relationship. It’s not very convenient to the feelings or needs of others even if it means well. The public sentiment has a lack of patience and wants to get on with other business.

What does this have to do with censorship? I suppose it shows that censorship is not some big bad ghoul that provocateurs want to resuscitate. It’s already here, in a more benign form. I mentioned last time about the not-so-secret joys of being blocked online. But all of us can and do block others with impunity, it tells a very different story about The Way Things Are Today.

The complaint among the illiberal folks is that people are gorging themselves with more options than they can take on. That was true for a while. Then the internet went some steps further and, perhaps not intentionally, flipped the script. They instituted not just blocking, but muting and down-voting. There is as much opportunity to declaim as to acclaim, and I’d say that people give greater energy to the former than to the latter. It’s one thing to be free, quite another to be ruthlessly discriminating.

Complicating matters is that I do not exempt myself from this. I harbor strong distastes that, if given the right amount of power, I would act on without hesitation. It is my hope that a future society might be forced into the position where “Banned Books Week” would have to be renamed “Banned Video Essays Week.” My joy was incalculable at the revelation that I could mute “stories” on Instagram.

Where does this leave the crusader for Truth? Presumably in the same position in which he or she has always been: extreme discomfort. But this time it is for a different reason. Previously the crusader had to endure considerable risk and sacrifice against an overbearing and highly official repression. With repression now decentralized and widespread, the crusader looks more idiot than martyr. I suppose the crusader could pick and choose battles, but that seems rather relativistic. With privatized censorship, Truth (Freedom, or whatever) is not a combatant but a competitor for franchise rights.

Perhaps this is just my way of coming to terms with the fact that censorship, lingering and undead, is not leaving my home or anyone else’s anytime soon. Someone might recover Truth, eventually. Hopefully by someone who can stomach the sight of the condition it must be in by now.