Black Ribbon Award

Month: December, 2016




Probably the best way to start is to offer a formal apology for my part in propagating the goth revival. This is not to assume that you have any strong feelings one way or the other on this event, but when I look back on the last few years and see both its overt and covert pervasiveness in the general public, I see it as a hapless antagonist of a horror prequel sees a once-vibrant, now-contaminated area, muttering “I can’t help but feel somehow responsible,” before being devoured by zombies.

I’ve long had a taste for the funereal. I don’t wear black as much as I used to, but I was one of the few people in America who regularly watched Hannibal , let alone as it was scheduled on TV. And while I make repeat—and perhaps annoying—public affirmations to punk, my true genre of choice is what I call “pop dirge,” which is sonically manifold—Andy Stott, Tim Hecker, Chelsea Wolfe, Jesu, to name a few—but tonally uniform. In fact, the first real date I had ever been on took place at an old-timey funeral customs exhibit being shown at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Even the very word funereal has a kind of eerie, embalmed Thanatosian beauty to it.

This is not objectionable in a broad sense, of course. This is romanticism, which is wonderful and has an appropriately imposing legacy on our art. But I approach it sometimes like a dream world I drift in and out of; my division between naïve poetic idealist and cynical prose realist is less nuanced than most. There is a difference between finding beauty and drama in life’s mysteries and fetishizing them to conceal a defective attitude towards them, the latter of which I tend to risk upon reflection.

It’s not so much that I am bad at mourning. I suppose we are all not as adequate at grief as we hope to be. We are never quite as mature or we are never quite as vulnerable as we expect of ourselves and think others expect of us. Because just as we do not ask to be given life we do not generally impose death on others, so it does not interest me to what degree or to what depth a given person copes with trauma. The Victorian era mourning clothes custom shows how the appropriate measure of grief alters over time. I’m rather more taken by the idea that we are given the chance to mourn at all.

The most interesting sights to see in New York City are the ones barred from the public. Most interesting of those is Hart Island, a 101-acre landmass off of the coast of the Bronx, which contains the City Cemetery. With over a million bodies interred on its ground, it is one of the largest tax-funded mass graves in the world. It’s likely you may already know some of this as it is covered in the media with some obsession, in spite (or because) of the fact that few have seen it directly. Those who seek entry have two good options. One is crime. The island is run by New York City’s Department of Corrections, which pays Rikers Island inmates 50 cents an hour to bury the dead; that being the other best option. Or death of a kind.

No one has full control of the state in which they die, the interred of Hart Island had less control than average. Some went there because they were unidentified or unclaimed, some because those who did claim them couldn’t afford the burial costs, and some because of simple clerical error. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s sent 16 infected there. Just under 9,000 are stillborn babies. Entry is less likely if one is living, even if one is mourning. “There are two types of Hart Island visits,” the Department of Corrections website reads, “general visits to a gazebo area on the island and burial site visits for family members of those who are buried on the island. Each type of visit takes place once per month and all visitors must be registered before the visit day.” Access used to be less frequent until a class action lawsuit forced the policy change to once a month.

Helping fill in the gaps is the Hart Island Project, a charity founded in 2011 dedicated to helping families and other loved ones gain access to burial records and advocate for more visitation rights. Most impressive is the “travelling cloud museum,” an interactive archive of those interred since 1980. Entries are not always complete. Beyond plot location, some places of death are redacted; some don’t have names. Though there is a space for loved ones to include a story of the deceased. “Her life wasn’t easy,” writes a childhood friend of one of the buried, “but in every memory I have of her she is laughing & upbeat.  She was friendly to everyone & especially loved animals.” “At 11 yrs old I lost my mom and we didn’t know where she was buried because she didn’t want to be found,” writes the son of another. Other stories contain poems, half-complete employment records, or just photos.

When I was in college, high schools started instituting Every 15 Minutes, a Canadian-imported anti-drunk driving program presented for as many as two school days in the run-up to prom season. As you are a bit younger than I am, and assuming you attended public school, you probably know what I’m talking about. (So again, please forgive the redux.) It is known for two things: its not always accurate premise and the Grand Guignol manner in which it is presented, which sometimes includes faux death announcements of select students being killed in a crash, but almost always includes a staged wreck with said students, created in painstaking detail with special effects, first responders, hospitals, courtroom proceedings, and funerals. Also, videos weepily scored by cover songs of cover songs.

The program tries to present how bad choices engender a gruesome chaos, but in a way that is at once transparently formulaic and existentially confounding. It is not about death so much as it is about keeping straight on your postgraduate plan by not acquiring a vehicular manslaughter charge, which is fine in a general sense but very odd seen from this vantage point. Death and its finality are sidestepped entirely; death is the Crispin Glover to the moral failing’s Michael J. Fox. And it raises the pathos of public mourning from solemn to melodramatic to voyeuristic.

If there is any usable lesson about death from Every 15 Minutes, it is that we hope to mourn and to be mourned. Though it is crudely put, it is not a bad thing to reinforce in itself. A healthy culture is not one that mourns in a certain way, but one that can mourn at all, processing life’s end neither as a plot twist nor as a statistic. But even in our culture that is not guaranteed.

peaceIn 1948, Hart Island’s burial inmates appealed for and built a monument in dedication to the unclaimed dead. Rectangular in shape, and bearing a cross on one side and the word “PEACE” on another, I find beauty in its simplicity. The two very small photos on Google image search don’t do it justice; if I could I would make every effort to see it. It makes me consider the idea of Hart Island being completely opened to the public, for it to face a kind of death that seems impossible to fathom, with its silence, its anonymity, its utilitarian modesty, the anticlimactic paradox of one million bodies, piled in plywood boxes under a vast field, mostly just because.

I suspect such a proposal would be met with resistance even, perhaps especially, from Hart Island mourners and their advocates. It calls for a meditation of something so awesome it is almost cold; it risks abstraction, and may just enable a kind of ennui that is somehow more vague and more pretentious. It would only replace the baroque funereal with the minimalist funereal. In any case, the Hart Island Project is more powerful with a much simpler perspective. There are over 2,000 pages of names on the website, some given recognition for the first time in as long as I’ve been alive. I’d go so far as to say that its design, scrolling one cloud entry after another, is intended to be daunting for the onlooker with no name in particular to search. Our taking for granted that no one deserves to be forgotten often overlooks that remembrance is neither assured nor always as simple as the already fairly hard way with which we are familiar.


This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.





In figuring out how I was going to write to you about justice, I came first to the problem of whether or not I was qualified to discuss it at all. Even though you invited the subject, there’s something kind of precarious about having a lawyer-in training as one’s audience. It’s like being invited to speak about death at a corpse convention. But having taken little time to get over that, my conclusion was twofold.

First was my realization that, despite our differing backgrounds and divergent careers, our main concerns come down to wrestling with language. What is the practice of law but a highly specialized art of reading? And what is the teaching of law but the teaching of an alternate English? For my part I can go only so far in being able to read it, but I can take in just enough to understand that a confounding concept like emanating penumbras has far-reaching implications. And so I was sent into something of a fugue state trying to figure out what justice means really. Which led me to my next conclusion.

Of course I can talk about justice because I am human. Indeed, lay people seem uniquely qualified to not only talk about justice compared to legal practitioners at whatever level, but to set its boundaries. Because I see justice as a concept created entirely by lay people. Though it is less of a precise word than it is a vaguely desired outcome, the base requirement of satisfaction between members of a society, and the reason for society existing at all. It is a resource lawyers are paid to mine, and what judges are paid—and worshipped—to value. Like Potter Stewart and his porn, we know justice when we see it.

So then maybe it is better to go about this by teasing out what I think is just than what justice may or may not mean. In fact when thinking about this I remembered our conversations from a year ago relating to Making a Murderer. I had many conversations about that show at the time, but yours stood out to me, not because of how your law school experiences may have shaped your thinking, but because I was learning what I took to be the morals that, at least in part (I think, please correct if I’m wrong), compelled you to take law school up. And they were morals to which I could relate.

For the longest time I had difficulty admitting that, at bottom, my thinking was primarily moral. Because I had grown up in a world wherein principled thinking was a hindrance more often than not. This is not to say that there was a total absence of rightness, but it felt ever contingent on favorable conditions. Pure principle was something of a weakness, a show of unintelligence, an incapability of managing the complex thinking required for pure pragmatism. This conflict made itself plain when I made Biopsy. Any digs made at moral absolutism in its pages were not as interesting as the digs made at the logical extremes of cold utilitarianism. At the time I read Posner with some fascination, not as someone who was wise but as someone who was clever. Pragmatism is not useless, by any means, but it’s seldom more than clever. Morality’s simple form obscures a more daunting substance.

So my embarrassment broke down and Making a Murderer played no small part. The sense of wrong, despite—even because of—the complications of the Avery family, was plain for everyone to see. People in power choosing to act against their oaths to serve pettier desires is something we all mostly hear about as rumor or as discontinued bad practice. I mean, libertarians are well aware of this, but I think people were quite taken aback by seeing the rekindling of grudges at the expense of one person’s life, another’s freedom, and a family’s unity.

If justice is the most favored outcome, injustice is the most egregious obstruction to it, which I take to be an act of one being vaulting above its station in life to lower the station of another. Even if there is no greater power strengthening it or protecting it, there is a thrill, I think, when someone catches someone else in their radar and to deem them as not being human enough; and to proceed as though certain basic entitlements do not apply to them. For instance, though I do not pretend to know the experience of a trans person, nor is it easy for me to understand trans people as they would prefer: as an identity rather than a subculture; but when trans people express fear of reprisal for the simple act of dressing and identifying in a way that, while unusual to most, is not harmful, I am bound to take it seriously. I remember distinctly last summer when Lila Perry, a trans high female in Missouri sought to use the girls restroom and locker facilities in her school—as opposed to the faculty facilities—which split the small town down the middle. There were protests from parents and students organized a mass walkout. I think for her trouble Perry was on The View. But the story is no longer reported, so I have no idea what became of the situation or Perry herself. What remained was a chilling sentiment reported from a local: “There is nothing wrong with being different. But when you are different, there are sacrifices.”

Until we see them so starkly challenged, we tend to be complacent about our worldviews. At some level I was never unconscious of the wrongs that could be made possible within and by this country. But it was always too far off and beyond my control. If I just kept voting for X or argued my family into the ground about Y, and intoned Lord Acton as I would the Our Father, then I’d have absolution. But every election in which I have been eligible to vote gave me fresh reminders of the futility, even the cowardice, of that thinking. Our most recent election is significant in that it drove that point to my face with the force of a mallet.

The struggle for justice always takes place outside of power centers. But I don’t think we, in our current state, are well prepared. Every protest movement since the mid-20th century is modeled in some way on the Civil Rights Movement, the history of which is taught less as a series of acts of civil disobedience designed to bring about specific social outcomes at great risk, but as a rite of passage, a kind of careful ritual. I am skeptical of those I know who are already getting into the romantic dissident mode in light of recent events, but they have a point. The onus is on us to reassert what is right and what we require of one another. The problem is that that there is yet no clear means to do this. The character of the incoming government, like our protest movements, is predicated on familiar models. It is perversely comforting to some that fascism, or whatever, as we have understood it is making a comeback. I’m not going to rule that out exactly, but I’m also not going to rule out more inventive, and therefore more unsettling, mutations taking place that would force the moral citizen to improvise.

The point of seeking justice—whether for yourself or for others—is that it should not require extreme risk as a first resort. Though in worst case scenarios it often happens that all sensible options give way very easily to domino effect before one is left with little other option than fight or flight. That, I think, is how dissidence works. Power twists the screws leaving certain people suddenly capable of defiance that, in any good society, would be foolish. In 1943, the German White Rose movement distributed leaflets decrying “National Socialist subhumanity,” and calling for Germany to become “a federalist state” that defends “freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the protection of individual citizens from the arbitrary will of criminal regimes of violence.” Three of its members, all no older than 24, were brought before the Nazi “People’s Court” and sentenced to death by guillotine, carried out on the same day as the hour-long trial.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I certainly don’t mean to imply that these are outcomes I want or want others to seek out; or that I personally am capable of doing that. On the other hand, a kind of psychological preparation is something I think is needed to a certain extent. If it becomes clearer going forward that we’ve reached that precipice, I want sanity as much as others want resolve. I want to have made clear an opposing order that is capable of going up against whatever disorder is coming. And I want to see us come out on the other side with our humanity largely in tact, and with a dignity as equitable as air.


This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.




Of all the subjects so far given for this series, idleness is at once the least gloomy and the most difficult to reflect on. Its legacy as one of the most turned-to themes of occasional nonfiction is daunting to say the least. “An Apology for Idlers” is one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most well known essays, though I admit that’s not saying much; Samuel Johnson had a periodical called The Idler; Jerome K. Jerome wrote of it as well. If Montaigne somehow didn’t put pen to paper about it I imagine it is because he died before getting the chance. (Fact check: he did) And even Thomas Merton’s paeans to “contemplation” can be read as the idleness defense’s high-minded first cousin. Idleness is a light subject, so light as to be bounced around like a cerebral beach ball at a humanist Glastonbury.

And yet, of all the subjects I am least unqualified to confront, this one would rank rather high. In fact it would have stiff competition against writing itself, which, I guess, should come as no surprise. But this is still a high claim coming from a scion of a generation known as much for its self-consciously self-aware self-deprecation as it is for its laziness. But believe me, or at least bear with me, when I say that I am at my most prideful, my most confident, and my most steadfast in asserting the leg up I have in the apparent competition I and my peers are running to be the most inert. I have, indeed, a proclivity towards idleness, one that feels natural having indulged it for so long but was intuited rather than inborn, a revelation that, for some, pleases as much as it disturbs.

Like any immigrant family, mine was one that came to America having known mostly toil and religion. And death. My great grandmother, I am told, took her first job at age nine when she still lived in Spain, pushing a wheelbarrow around for a bricklayer. (If siestas played any part in this family tree branch it did not carry over.) The man she married after coming to the States shoveled coal for the Hudson River ferries. When the ferrymen went on strike, his brother invited him to move to the Pittsburgh area where a job was procured for him at the Universal Atlas cement company—if you’ve seen The Mothman Prophecies, its ruins are featured at their most gloomy. My other great grandfather, George A. Morgan, worked at a Life Savers factory before dying prematurely. Gradually, religion had been lowered as a priority with each generation, while the work ethic has entrenched itself, and to such a depth that it is my family’s only truly consistent principle. Though you need not work to have good character, the defects of your character don’t matter so long as you work. Though I am by no means the first person in my family to have attended college, I am quite sure to be the first, with all the implications that apply, to openly call bullshit on that premise.

About a century ago, around the same time my family had begun planting its roots here, the term “slacker” was if not coined then put into popular use for the first time. At the height of the First World War, it was a derogatory designation for those, mainly young men, who were seen as shirking their patriotic obligations, everything from refusing to donate to war causes to dodging the draft. The sinister implications of the word are made plain by the easily Google-able propaganda imagery of the time. Just as interesting are the contemporary newspaper headlines reporting “Forty-One on First Slacker List for City” or “Slacker is Dowsed in Barrel of Paint.” It would be amusing to read these to those none the wiser of their historical context and see how they’d react to the implied idea of Bill Clinton imposing subcultural purges.

Americans, seemingly above all other cultures, fear uselessness like a phantasm. “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” whatever its precise origin, is more American than “amber waves of grain.” Idleness has a deceptive innocence to it, like a mortal sin we confuse as venal. It is anathema to the ethic to which I and others have been raised to adhere. I contrast this with leisure, which in itself is fine except in a work-dominant culture where it assumes a Vichy-like dependence, serving as a reward for those who obey. Idleness emerges as a passive resistance to this arrangement, putting forth the counterargument that work is not as infused with as much spiritual and moral currency as hoped. That one person’s disentitlement to inaction does not make automatic one person’s entitlement to the energy of another, regardless of how much or how little one pays for it. To see the degradation of the work ethic in action look to Greg Ginn, whose “Calvinistic” slave driving of Black Flag propelled it to rock n’ roll greatness, but later propelled him to (very plausible) allegations of child abuse.

This is not to say that I don’t see objections worth being raised on my end of things, prime above all being its major social disproportion. With some notable exceptions—Merton, Eric Hoffer—a steady majority of the world’s greatest idlers are comfortably well-off at best, obscenely wealthy at worst. William Hazlitt seemed to want nothing more than to retire into a life of motionless self-reflection, but his financial dire straits—and maybe also his contrarily hyperkinetic constitution—made this impossible; he died in misery in a boarding house that is now a luxury hotel that bares his name. There is no such thing as an ethic of idleness, only a privilege. The closest thing to principle in idleness emanates out of the choruses sung by young, mostly conservative, layabouts who cultivate an air of classic aristocracy to counteract the stagnant satisfactions in the conventional career and personal life. If I seem to embody this at all, I should hope to make up the offense by doing the utmost to make constructive use of my time to see how idleness can be redistributed as we might seek to redistribute the fruits of labor.

America is plagued by a cult of usefulness that has no ritual with which to off itself. And yet, as you and others have pointed out, a rising number of people, once broadly employable and defined by that employability, find themselves surplus to requirements. In taking stock of our disaster scenarios, we get caught up in the most operatic ones, in which we are vanquished as foes, and tend to overlook the anticlimactic ones, in which we are swept aside as nuisances. We are reaching an uncomfortable realization that despite our continued drive to live, the mean by which we fulfilled that drive is not a renewable resource. The society we built no longer needs us but for its light maintenance, reaching ever closer to a Vonnegut-esque existence, where the last job is turning the switch to the machine that does all the others. “The problem is this,” Vonnegut wrote, “How to love people who have no use.”

There is some personal anxiety here, to be sure. On the one hand, my own struggles to be at once useful, reasonably paid, and somehow protected from the tedium the first two tend to weigh on me, are without end. On the other hand, my contempt for the culture the cult of utility perpetuates is fast approaching the negative power of a neutron star. I attach it to no politics. No ideological captivity can domesticate it. It hews closest to an anti-religion. It has no particular tenants or theology other than we are not how we work or who we work for. In its moderate guise it would relent life’s current pace and recast how we understand what it means to be productive in as much as we understand each other and ourselves.

I’m aware of how utopian that sounds, but then I am already succumbing to the influence of the extremist reading of my own catechisms. Having too long been lost in a dense forest of futility, I lurch steadily toward the prospect of finding the quietest corner to gather moss and, when the time comes, have my husk provide sustenance to the earth. This, provided I can overcome my suffocating ambitions and petty fears.


This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.




I have to say that at first I was not moved by this subject. I didn’t think that there was much insight left to wring out of it at this point. Though it takes seemingly forever to twist all the moisture out of a dishrag, I felt I was coming to it as it lay dried and crinkly at the bottom of the sink. But as I thought it over I found that the sink had been filled with water once more, and of a greasier, more putrid sort. It looks as if doubt is front and center as the most relevant topic of the present moment; at least after anxiety and rage take their breathers. We are in the midst of an age of “post-truth,” a rather scorched battleground wherein “fact-checkers” vanquish an untruth only to see another sprout up Hydra-like in its place. “What is truth?” seemed to be all Facebook could muster when it was first questioned about its habit for “fake news,” which is now an especially identifiable anti-genre rather than a basic pejorative term, like “think piece” or “clickbait.” The only certainly that is left is that everything is in doubt.

Then I started to doubt that.

To be sure I can see how this situation can be unsettling to some, though it took me some time to come to that. Mine is a view that is somewhat blinded by secularist shutter shades, through which I am unable to see things as certain other people may see them; such as how doubt might be seen by people of faith. I don’t see doubt as a source of suffering or as an affliction. I don’t see it as a regrettable phase or even as an interesting problem. I don’t find it as troubling for someone to be “wracked with doubt,” then again I only find it very troubling if someone is wracked with guilt. But maybe this is a grave insensitivity on my part. Perhaps there are nuances I am missing that someone of your background can illuminate. I would appreciate it. But that does not necessarily change how I see doubt generally. It is, overall to me, a sign of good health rather than being without shelter. And if this was natural to me in my upbringing it was calcified in my intellectual development, specifically my encounters with conservatism. Or conservatism of a kind, anyway.

I can’t actually remember how it came to me precisely. I want to say Andrew Sullivan but that doesn’t seem exactly true. The way he expressed his own view, his “conservatism of doubt,” seemed more like confirmation than revelation. Taking cues from Oakeshott and Strauss (and compounding upon what I learned previously from Reinhold Niebuhr), he summarized it as “an acceptance of the unknowability of ultimate truth, an acknowledgement of the distinction between what is true forever and what is true for the hear and now, and the embrace of the discrepancy between theoretical and practical knowledge.” As much as I’d rather not give more credit to Andrew Sullivan’s legacy than I think it deserves, here, for me anyway, it must be due.

I don’t know if that is exactly conservatism but it is virtuous and prudent. It enables those things I most cherish in humanity, which tend to have the novelty of an gift meant to soften the blow of bad news: caution, restraint, and humility. The doubter is less inclined to take leaps in the dark, as much for the sake of others as for his or her sake. Where some see a doubter as shirking off responsibility or fraught with indecision, I see it as sensible acquiescence to powerlessness, or to, I guess, imprecision for those skeptics with actual power. Here would probably be a great place to quote someone else, Hume I suppose, for a much more sophisticated touch, but that would be misguided. Of all my tenets, doubt is my most vulgar. And it is not the problem we face.

Doubt can have none, or at least not a lot, of the value I just gave it if it didn’t have an antagonist. Where doubt tends to assuage me certainty tends to agitate me. With generosity certainty can be seen as a marker of integrity and a championship of clarity, but those, in action, do not seem to be permanent states. It seems much more easily susceptible to arrogance, and if not ignorance then a kind of apathy for any of the vicissitudes of intellect. A differing of views to the certain person rings like bad or boring music to be muted than any kind of argument to work through.

This attitude was evident in the messaging and mindset of Hillary Clinton’s supporters, who found anything or anyone opposed to them as part of the same festering mass of incoherency and vileness. Their certainty came very close to topping the kind coming out of Claremont, or at least those followers of Harry Jaffa, who take America’s founding documents with the same authority as biblical writ and everyone else is a nihilistic saboteur. “It would certainly seem,” Jaffa wrote, “that the salvation of the West must come, if it is to come, from the United States. The salvation of the United States, if it is to come, must come from the Republican Party. And the salvation of the Republican Party, if it is to come, must come from the conservative movement within it.”

Though it seems beyond belief, our situation, as I see it, is a bit more exacerbated.

“Post-truthiness” was among the most popular concepts of 2016 alongside “alt-right,” but the term is inaccurate in assessing the problem. The better term to use is “hypercertainty,” a state in which viewpoints, whether respectable convictions or crippling biases, have gone from mere aloofness and rigidity into fortress mode. It’s a conduct that sees each type of true believer acting as if the world is theirs and treating the other as though they were infiltrating and seeking to subvert it. And each one carries explicit fantasies, if not precise plans, of suppression and expulsion of the other, though they seem momentarily satisfied with the fake news approach. It’s simple to create, and perhaps fun if you have the right mindset, that of a Swiftian Don Draper of sorts. With minimal effort it strikes at the reader’s senses handily, and with a little extra hustle it tricks more active news junkies long thought to be immune to propaganda. But at some point fake news will become just as potent and too easily consumable as any light beer. So where does it go from here? As it turns out, hypercertainty is a great source of uncertainty.

With the situation so assessed, doubt’s restful surface becomes rippled with vigilance. One in which doubt pursues certainty across the psychic countryside with a determination equal to that of Reverend Powell’s pursuit of John and Pearl in The Night of Hunter. This goes some way towards explaining the proliferation of “irony bros” and the “dirtbag left,” who are understandably divisive but whose presence also fills the gaping hole left by the mainstream liberal comedy guardians once they’d become sanctimonious. They play rough at best, unfair at worst, and have their own ingrown set of convictions, but they are still playful, and in keeping with the traditional boundaries of pamphleteer viciousness. I don’t actually know if they have followers beyond people who already agree with them, or if they will themselves become more hardened as times become more fraught, but the more liberal media consumers are beginning to take note of the sea change, if not accept how their errors helped bring it about.

Of course the fetishization of certainty only serves to highlight the vulnerability doubt has to the same fate. How does one deal with this? By not actually being so consumed with it. My restrained temperament, my cast of hesitation that turns my mind into a cursor deleting and retyping thoughts in real time, is something of a hindrance in the present state of discourse that rewards rapidity. I regret that to an extent. But at this point it seems wiser to refine it than to scrap it and pretend to be some other kind of thinker. I have certainties, many, in fact. I keep them to myself as one keeps bodies beneath the floorboards. Those certainties that end up conveyed in my actions and expressions are just their emanating stench. There’s nothing controversial about them, I think; one could probably guess some of them by what emanates in the preceding paragraphs, or in other letters. But my personal situation does not have the luxury of rigidity, so I hope that flexibility proves beneficial in the long term and that I might pick up what few partners in crime, so to speak, on the many freeways I travel.


This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.



If you, like me, are an intense person, you are likely to come into the holiday season with a greater sense of joy than usual. The preceding months are always kind of a slog, aren’t they? For much of it you find yourself unable to connect with others, and they unable to do the same with you. In fact, you may sense a kind of space clearing around you, as though you are a cold draft of air they can see coming. It is no fault of yours, or theirs for that matter. This is just the drawback of being born with what I call an Advanced Emotional Wavelength. You do not mean to put people off by your straightforward, abrupt nature. You do not mean to overwhelm them by never being able to do anything by half. Nor do you wish to frustrate them by taking hours out of the day to refuse to compromise on a single point that will later prove trivial. It is simply your nature, your strange power, your iron endurance. And if anything you do throughout the year is somehow not totally derailed on the count of your unusual stridency, then you are merely a very fortunate person.

But Christmastime is very different. It brings a feeling that never really announces itself but dawns on you gradually. You find that you are more tolerated in casual situations. The visible aging you’ve likely onset in your friends, peers, and loved ones has settled into a kind of glazed contentment. They have resigned themselves to you. At least until after January 1—January 7 if they are Orthodox—you are free, free as the air itself, to pull them up, by the follicles if necessary, to your exalted level. To impose upon them the full measure of your mental constitution, which knows no common mode of sleep, no dietary moderation, and no visual, aural, verbal, or otherwise conceptual limitations. Maybe you’re not given that much leeway, but even a little is still quite a lot, and so you have a certain freedom to … engage, I guess, with them in ways that are more amenable to your appetites and less constricted to workaday demands of practicality and courtesy.

And out of this mindset, probably, came the Christmas epistles, for lack of a better term, an interactive writing project I found myself undertaking in the lead up to one of our holiest and most cheerful of days. “Interactive” might be a bit of an exaggeration, though, implying heavy participation. The set up is actually very simple. I solicited some friends and colleagues to see if they wanted an epistolary essay sent to them, if they agreed they would choose a broad, humanistic topic, which I would proceed to write about and email to them. That’s pretty much it. It’s pretty amazing that this occurred entirely by accident, coming to a friend planning to buy a conventional gift, only to come away with this. I expectedly enjoyed the experience and quickly lost my bearings attaining more, getting 10 in all. (The first lesson of this project was that if you offer to write to people and, moreover, give them some input, they will unanimously accept.)

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I assume most of you reading this are aware of what epistolary essays are. But in case otherwise, because it is, to be fair, a pretty antiquated medium, they are pieces of writing that mix the loose intimacy of personal letters with the formality of essayistic argument or instruction. Anyone who’s been to church has heard readings from the epistles of St. Paul. Letters form the basis of St. Jerome’s intellectual and spiritual legacy, among other things:

The same sentence, therefore, was passed upon both, and the executioner dragged away his victims. The whole populace rushed out to see the sight, pouring in dense masses from the crowded gates, so that you might have thought the entire city was migrating. At the very first stroke of the sword the miserable youth’s head was cut off, and his headless corpse rolled over in its own blood.

Seneca’s “moral letters” are also a good example; Edmund Burke was fond of the form; and De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s long, emotionally frayed but graceful prison letter to Alfred Douglas, is a minor literary classic. This is to say nothing of epistolary novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Though these are shared publicly, and designed to be to an extent, they are not “open letters,” a popular mode of writing today that ostensibly talks past the recipient to preach to the writer’s choir. The epistle, wherever it ends up, is dependent upon recipient’s involvement. For example, if I knew one recipient to have a notable sense of humor, I was encouraged to be funny myself. More generally, though, was the tonal balancing act of being not too didactic or explain-y on the one hand, not too personal or self-involved on the other. There was some preparation involved, in fact for some subjects I already had ideas for which I could not find placement elsewhere, but generally I wanted to keep things loose and spontaneous as well as formal. I don’t think I actually needed style guides, and in most cases that would have been a hindrance. But that said, George Bernard Shaw’s mostly improvised speeches helped, as did Wayne Kostenbaum’s essays.

But these were nothing without the subjects assigned. “On X” essays by Bacon or Montaigne or Hazlitt or whoever are enjoyable to read but less so to write on a subject of one’s own choosing for no one in particular. But paradoxically this restricted setup made the activity more freeing. For this activity the subjects were either gloomy (suffering, mourning, incest, aggression, doubt) or subjects that could be made gloomy by me with minimal effort (justice, idleness, bodies, mirrors, the meaning of life). I always took the first thing they said and did not inquire as to their motivations and kind of ran with them, composing them longhand first and revising when I typed them up, length averaging around 1,400 words. I wrote the first one on November 29 and the last one on December 16.


But now you can judge for yourselves of their value after the fact. With name redactions and light clarifications and omissions, I offer the fruits of my Christmas crafting, two published each week some time after Christmas. My deepest thanks to everyone who allowed me to write to them. Few if anything contained in these letters will be new, and these are not perfect documents, but the creative exploration they afforded me made for some interesting writing here and there: I forsook the goth revival, I detailed my selfie-taking method, I rolled my eyes at “post-truthiness,” compared the suburban home to a hermit kingdom, speculated on the persecution of slackers, and introduced a retired obstetrician to antinatalism.

If you are someone I know who liked these results and is saddened that I did not seek you out, I apologize, but hope to do another round some time after, maybe in more spaced out waves during those dreadful non-holiday months. And certainly I encourage others, when time and energy permit, to try this yourselves with your own friends, loved ones, etc. There’s no real principle guiding it, it don’t know to what extent in improves or degrades one’s life, it was just a fun diversion, a diversion, in any case, from Netflix or scrolling through Twitter, or whatever. Below are the complete contents.

On doubt
On idleness
On justice
On mourning
On bodies
On mirrors
On incest
On suffering
On aggression
On the meaning of life