Black Ribbon Award

Month: December, 2018

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.

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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 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.

AWKWARD MALE MIDNIGHT BONDING CLUB

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Episode 1: SEMANTICS AND MILKSHAKES

SCENE: A dive bar, night. MAN 1 is sitting at the bar with a morose expression. The BARTENDER approaches him.

BARTENDER: What can I get you?

MAN 1 [thinks for a moment]: White Russian?

BARTENDER: Are you asking me or is that some kind of impediment?

MAN 1: I would like a white Russian. Sorry.

BARTENDER: I’m just joshin’. Hold on. [He goes to prepare the drink and returns.] White Russian.

MAN 1 [holding the glass up]: Cheers. [Takes a drink.] Slow, eh?

BARTENDER: Weekday night vibes.

MAN 1: As the kids say.

BARTENDER: You have nothing better to do tonight?

MAN 1: I have nothing to do, period. Nothing better has come my way. I’d take something worse but that isn’t coming my way either.

BARTENDER: Something got you down?

MAN 1: Why, do I look it?

BARTENDER: Yeah, frankly speaking.

MAN 1: What’s my look?

BARTENDER: Troubled, if I had to guess.

MAN 1: If only I were troubled. [Deep breath and sigh.] Melancholy … is what you’re looking for.

BARTENDER: There’s a difference?

MAN 1: A subtle, little-appreciated, but crucial difference. You’ll find distinctions all over the melancholy family.

BARTENDER: That so?

MAN 1: Yeah. [Silence.] Would you like me to tell you the differences?

BARTENDER: Go right ahead.

MAN 1: Troubled is a disturbance over a very specific thing. Anyone can be troubled by anything at any time of the day. Though your deduction was a fair one as people are usually troubled at night. Late at night into the early morning just before and in the midst of dawn. Melancholy is more of a temperamental thing. You don’t need a reason to be melancholy, you just are.

BARTENDER: I’ve seen you in higher spirits than this.

MAN 1: Melancholics are still melancholic when they’re in high spirits. Sometimes being melancholic is quite rude. Like at someone’s birthday party or when someone else is troubled. So you have to put on a brave face. Now sadness is a whole other thing entirely. That’s more like an accessory. It’s something you put on when you know it’ll work. Depression is a sickness. It’s sort of like being troubled but it has its own agenda. You could be totally unfazed and wham, there it is out of nowhere. You could say, though I myself will not, that being depressed his like having the flu, and being melancholic is like having flu-like symptoms. Anxiety is sort of the other way around, where you’ve gaslighted yourself into being troubled.

BARTENDER: Are there other words?

MAN 1: I think so, but I can’t think of them right now. [Takes a drink.] This is good. I forgot how good this drink is.

BARTENDER: I don’t remember you ever ordering that here.

MAN 1: I tend not to, it’s like drinking a boozy milkshake.

BARTENDER: You know they have those. Adult milkshakes they call them.

MAN 1: Oh I know adult milkshakes.

BARTENDER: They’re fun.

MAN 1: I guess. But why mess with something that’s already good?

BARTENDER: That’s a take, I guess.

MAN 1: It’s wisdom is what it is. You should consider selling milkshakes. Real ones, I mean.

BARTENDER: Some bars do.

MAN 1: Do they?

BARTENDER: But not this one.

MAN 1: Oh.

BARTENDER: If you had one would it make you less melancholy?

MAN 1: No, not really.

***

Episode 2: TAT TALK

SCENE: MAN 2 and 3 sit at the bar with bottles of beer.

MAN 2: So I’ve been meaning to ask for a while …

MAN 3: Yeah?

MAN 2: What’s up with that tattoo?

MAN 3: Which one?

MAN 2: That one. [Points.] Your right forearm. What does it say?

MAN 3 [rolling is sleeve back]: Take a look.

MAN 3 holds out his arm; MAN 2 moves his head toward it and squints.

MAN 2: “Fuck … arraignment.” Fuck arraignment?

MAN 3: That’s right.

MAN 2: I don’t seem to remember you ever being arraigned.

MAN 3: That’s because I wasn’t.

MAN 2: Are you going to be arraigned?

MAN 3: Nope. I think if you were able to scour the area criminal records—or any criminal records anywhere—you will find none with my name.

MAN 2: Well … I can do an online background check.

MAN 3: Really?

MAN 2: Yeah, there are a bunch of those sites. Just put your name in and voila: I get a bunch of information. Not all of it, but a lot.

MAN 3: I hadn’t been aware.

MAN 2: I think you can do a “distinguishing characteristics” search too.

MAN 3: Huh.

MAN 2: Yeah. [Pause.] So what’s it mean?

MAN 3: I just think it’s a very good attitude to have. It inspires me. I look at it every day. Like in the shower or something. Drinking coffee or pulling into work. It makes me feel like I can take on whatever comes my way.

MAN 2: Yeah but how did you come up with that exact phrase.

MAN 3: It’s a guy. I got it from a guy.

MAN 2: Just some guy?

MAN 3: Yeah. I was at a house party in Old Bridge a few years back and this guy was there. No idea who he was but he was on fire, man. He was lit. He was going around yelling and pounding beer after beer. In every corner of the house he’d yell “Fuck arraignment! Fuck arraignment!” and chug his beer and repeat. Some people cheered but most seemed annoyed. I don’t think he cared and he liked it that way. He was so defiant. It was like he was saying it to me. To us. To the world and the world’s procedures. Fuck our procedures! Hell yeah. [Drinks his beer.]

MAN 2: So he was being arraigned?

MAN 3: I would say so yeah.

MAN 2: Never thought we’d get personal affirmations from criminals now.

MAN 3: Look around you, bro. Criminals are the new heroes, the new outlaws, the new supermen.

MAN 2: I think that’s falsely accused criminals you’re thinking of.

MAN 3: Pretty sure it can be both/and.

MAN 2: So you must wear a lot of long sleeve shirts to work.

MAN 3: No.

MAN 2: No one cares about that tattoo?

MAN 3: I don’t work in the kind of industry that has those kinds of hang-ups.

MAN 2: I don’t know, I imagine if I had a tattoo like that and someone saw it at my work they’d say, “Hm, that guy takes moral cues from degenerates. I never noticed that before. I will look upon him in a different light,” yadda yadda yadda.

MAN 3: That’s because where you work sucks.

MAN 2: Be that as it may, what if you were on a date or something—like at a summer carnival, you couldn’t very well cover it up then, could you?

MAN 3: Again, I don’t date women who have those … issues.

MAN 2: I find that hard anyone wouldn’t have an issue with that.

MAN 3: I think maybe you need to hang with a more liberal, forward-thinking crowd.

MAN 2 [chuckles]: I suppose. [Peers at the tattoo again, has a realization.] Or you need better editors.

MAN 3: What?

MAN 2 [taking out his phone]: I don’t think that’s how you spell “arraignment.” [Types.] Yep. It’s autocorrecting. “Arraignment” has two R’s.

MAN 3: Are you kidding?

MAN 2: And no H.

MAN 3: Fuck, man. [Places his head on the bar.] Fuck, fuck, fuck. [Raises his head back up.] I asked the guy at the parlor if it was kosher, he said it was cool. I trusted him. You can’t not trust the tattoo artist.

MAN 2: But even tattoo artists are subject to hubris from time to time. It just affects them less directly. So maybe they live in self-denial.

MAN 3: So now what the fuck do I do?

MAN 2: Own it.

MAN 3: How?

MAN 2: Say it’s part of the joke. Like an ironic misdirection. Or like a reproduction of some crude graffiti you thought was really profound. That one is closer to the truth.

MAN 3: And those will work?

MAN 2: Well, you can’t really afford for them not to work.

MAN 3: Fuck.

MAN 2: Did the other guy have any tattoos?

MAN 3: Come to think of it he did. [Holds up his arms.] “Change my pitch up” on the left back bicep, “Smack my bitch up” on the right one.

MAN 2 [typing on his phone]: I’ll make a note of it and look it up later.

***

Episode 3: DOCTOR-PATIENT PRIVILEGE

SCENE: MAN 1 is sitting at the bar with a beer, scrolling on his phone. MAN 4 enters and takes the stool next to him.

MAN 1: Hey.

MAN 4: Hey, how’s it hangin’?

MAN 1: Not bad, all things considered.

MAN 4 motions for the BARTENDER who enters.

BARTENDER: What can I get ya?

MAN 4: Bud is fine.

BARTENDER: Budweiser?

MAN 4 [thinks a moment]: Actually, make it a Miller … High Life.

BARTENDER: You got it. Want a menu, too?

MAN 4 declines and the BARTENDER exits.

MAN 1: So how’s shit?

MAN 4: Shit’s good, more or less.

MAN 1: More rather than less, I hope.

MAN 4: Ideally. I guess you could say I’m in a grey area between more and less.

MAN 1: Could be worse.

MAN 4: You bet.

Pause.

MAN 1: It’s a good night to be out for a bit.

BARTENDER brings MAN 4 his beer.

MAN 4: Thanks. [Turns to MAN 1.] Cheers then.

Both hold up their bottles.

MAN 1: Cheers.

MAN 4: To nights out, I guess. [They awkwardly clink their bottles and drink.] Looks slow tonight.

MAN 1: It’s steady, I’d say. A lot of people coming in as others are coming out.

MAN 4 [looking around]: Don’t seem to be many women around.

MAN 1 [looking out to a specific area]: No, there are some over there. Those two.

MAN 4 [looking over]: So there are.

MAN 1: There are some men with them, though.

MAN 4: Yeah.

MAN 1: Husbands by the looks of it. So it might not be what you meant.

MAN 4: You can tell that?

MAN 1: I can hazard a guess. It’s the safe guess. I’m certainly not going to make inquiries. Would you?

MAN 4: There was a time when I’d consider it. Being honest here.

MAN 1: Sure.

MAN 4: Back to a time when consequences were sort of in the back of my mind. Now that I’m getting on in my years that kind of thrill-seeking has lost its edge.

MAN 1: Do you think about it sometimes? Consequences, I mean.

MAN 4: I know my actions have had them, but I’d be lying if I said I knew what they were.

MAN 1: Sorry if it brings up bad memories.

MAN 4: No, no, no, don’t worry. I get the impulse. Some people are haunted by their past actions. I’m not one of them. [Pause.] You seem like the haunted type.

MAN 1: I suppose I am, but I try not to be.

MAN 4: You try not to let it get to you, you mean? You either are haunted or you aren’t. Anyway, I guess you could say I’m haunted by something else.

MAN 1: What’s that?

MAN 4: I guess the future. [Drinks.] A possible future, maybe. The desire to settle down. To be … less alone. It used to tear me up inside, loneliness. Now it tears everyone up inside.

MAN 1: I read about it in The Atlantic.

MAN 4: Ironic, really.

MAN 1: Sign of the times. [Drinks.]

MAN 4: Loneliness will be a thing of the past soon enough.

MAN 1: You think?

MAN 4: I know. [Drinks.] Been seeing this therapist for a while. My last appointment she had this insight that really struck me. Like, it hit me right here. [Taps his fist over his stomach.] In the gut. She told me that there’s a gash in every one of us.

MAN 1: A gash?

MAN 4: A sliz.

MAN 1: Oh.

MAN 4: And it’s waiting to reveal itself. To tear us up from the inside outward. So we have to bring it out just right so we can get the best use out of it. [Drinks.] And it’s the same for women. They have, like, a whole auxiliary one for the same purpose. It’s amazing … amazing.

MAN 1: So, it’s … metaphorical or …

MAN 4 [drinks]: Oh, I don’t know. I thought maybe at first, but she never quite clarified. It felt wrong of me to even ask.

MAN 1: So your therapist … told you all this?

MAN 4: Not exactly word for word; but thematically that’s the long and short of it.

MAN 1: Guess it’ll be interesting to see what it means.

MAN 4: It’ll come when you least expect it. Like the coming of Christ.

MAN 1: So says your therapist?

MAN 4: So say I. Verbatim, too. [Finishes his beer and signals the BARTENDER.]

BARTENDER: Another High Life?

MAN 4: No, I’ll have a scotch and soda, I think.

BARTENDER: You think?

MAN 4: Huh.

MAN 1: He lives for this.

MAN 4: Yes, scotch and soda, please.

BARTENDER [to MAN 1]: Another Sam Adams for you?

MAN 1: Ah ye—

MAN 4: Come on, man you gotta change it up with me.

MAN 1: Uhm … [Thinks for a minute.] Stella, please.

BARTENDER: Scotch and soda and a Stella.

MAN 4: Oh and I will take a menu.

BARTENDER: Gotcha. [Exits.]

MAN 4: I may not be young, but the night sure is.

***

Episode 4: YOUTH IS WASTED ON THE YOUNG  

SCENE: MEN 1-4 are all at the bar sharing a pitcher with plastic cups. The bar is crowded, they are sullen at being surrounded by young people.

MAN 4: What the hell is this all about?

MAN 2: What?

MAN 4: I was asking what the hell was this all about!

MAN 3: It’s a nightmare!

MAN 1: What?

MAN 3: This sucks!

MAN 1: This sucks!

MAN 3: I know!

MAN 1: I’ll see what’s going on! [He waves the BARTENDER.] I don’t think he saw me!

MAN 4: Let me try! [He waves over the BARTENDER.] Nope! Nothing doing!

Pause. The BARTENDER enters.

BARTENDER: You fellas need another round?

MAN 2: What?

BARTENDER: A refill?

MAN 3: What’s the deal?

BARTENDER: College night!

MAN 2: What?

MAN 4: College night!

BARTENDER: New policy, I’m afraid!

MAN 1: We’re nowhere near a college, though!

BARTENDER: I think it’s for kids on break mostly!

MAN 3: What a crock!

MAN 1: What?

MAN 2: I’m going outside!

MAN 4: You don’t smoke!

MAN 2: I can’t hear myself think!

MAN 4: You think entirely too much!

MAN 2 exits with his cup.

MAN 3: What?

CUT TO front exterior of the bar. A young WOMAN is smoking. MAN 2 comes out and sits on the curb.

WOMAN: I don’t think you’re allowed to do that.

MAN 2 [looking at the cup]: Oh … yeah. I wasn’t thinking. I couldn’t hear myself think in there.

WOMAN [going through her purse]: Hold on. [Takes out a prescription bag and hands it to him.] Just put it in this.

MAN 2 [reading the bag]: This is for Bupropion.

WOMAN: So you’ve heard of it.

MAN 2: I might have.

WOMAN: Anyway it’s for an old prescription.

MAN 2: Hey, no judgment here. [Silence.] Those are elaborate nails.

WOMAN: Thanks.

MAN 2: Optics or defense?

WOMAN: The first. The second hadn’t occurred to me before.

MAN 2: Far be it from me to tell you how to apply a pedicure.

WOMAN: No harm in a constructive suggestion. And it’s manicure. Pedicure is feet.

MAN 2: Defensive pedicure seems impractical.

WOMAN: Only in winter, and most of fall and spring.

Enter MEN 1, 3, and 4.

MAN 3: Hey, this place sucks now, we’re changing venue.

MAN 2: Where?

MAN 3: We found a place nearby that’s open ‘til three. [Turns to WOMAN.] No offense of course.

The WOMAN shrugs and stomps out her cigarette.

CUT TO a diner. MEN 1-4 and the BARTENDER are all sitting at a table. Christmas music is playing. A WAITER wearing a Santa Claus hat enters.

WAITER: My name is Kent I’ll be your server tonight. Can I start you off with something to drink?

MAN 3: Coffee, black.

MAN 4: Decaf, cream and sugar.

WAITER: We only have milk now, is that okay?

MAN 4: It’s fine.

BARTENDER: I’ll have coffee.

MAN 1: Root beer float.

MAN 2: Coffee, please. And can we get some disco fries, too?

WAITER: Not a problem, I’ll be right back with your coffees and root beer float.

Silence.

MAN 4: I’m the only one who got decaf?

MAN 2: My ears are still ringing, I’m not getting any sleep tonight no matter what.

MAN 1: It’s a lost cause.

BARTENDER: Some nights I wear earplugs.

MAN 1: Really?

BARTENDER: Yep.

MAN 3: How do you …

BARTENDER: Lipreading is a trade secret, my friend.

MAN 4: I bet you get all sorts of eavesdropping dirt.

BARTENDER: It only really helps for repeat drink orders. I’d say it’s for the best but I sometimes wonder if anyone really talks in bars anymore. [Pause.] Present company excluded.

MAN 1: Who says we talk about anything?

MAN 2: Shouldn’t you be at the bar right now?

BARTENDER: Yes, technically.

MAN 2: What do you mean technically?

BARTENDER: I’ll tell you another trade secret. [Gets down.] But it can’t leave this table.

The MEN all hunch down.

MAN 3: What is it?

BARTENDER: There’s actually no use for a bartender. It’s all for show, and maybe for keeping things tidy—cleaning off the suds and spillage and whatever. Technically, if you’re of age, and have good credit, you can just hop over the counter and, technically, you can serve yourself, and maybe others if they so choose.

MAN 3: Whoa.

The WAITER enters with the coffees.

WAITER: Okay, black coffee, decaf milk and sugar, two more coffees, and your float and the disco fries are incoming.

MAN 1: Thanks.

The WAITER exits.

MAN 2: Wait, I’ve lost track of all the technicalities.

MAN 4: Is that for real? I could have been self-serving this whole time?

BARTENDER: No. You’ll get self-serve gas before you get self-serve beer. [Sips from his coffee.] Shit that’s hot! [Pause.] I’m sure it’s fine over there, it usually is. 

END.

THE BEST WRITING OF 2018

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2018 was a year of great calamity. Sure, the same was said of last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and so on. But I guess the year-watchers really mean it this time; and to be fair they have a good case, for the greatness of a year’s calamity is in direct proportion to the greatness of that year’s prose. And this was certainly a year of great prose—or so, again, we are reasonably informed by the prose-watchers, who have considerable overlap with the year-watchers.

At first glance it would not appear that I could be counted as a prose-watcher. Though I have never been directly accused of not watching prose, I could not persuasively defend myself if I had. My 2018 was marked by furious productivity. It seems all I did from start to end was write and remind people that I had written. As such, I apportioned scant time to the content storm swirling around me. Words, everywhere words! Scathing words! Savage words! Thoughtful words! Searching words! Wrenching words! Eloquent words! Gutting words! WORDS, MOTHERFUCKER. Understandably there came a point when ignoring all those words was no longer feasible.

And I did make plans to do exactly that. But I every time I did I kept getting sidetracked by all the goddamn holes in my socks. Seriously I count three on my current pair: one large one on the ball of my right, two large holes on the ball and heel of my left. It is much the same for an overwhelming majority of my socks.

I know what you’re going to say: “Chris, buy new socks, or at least stop wearing the same ones over and over again.” Easier said than done, my friends. But even if that was possible, I can’t rule out the very real possibility of sabotage. As a rule I am skeptical of nefarious intrigues at all levels; but in this instance, like the screaming heads at InfoWars, I cannot rule out the possibility that someone is coming in the dead of night to deliberately—and with rather admirable care and subtlety—create tears in my socks. Who this person or thing is and what his, her, or its motive might be are equally mysterious. There could be no precise motive whatever, beyond fucking with me. Just the other day I awoke to find my earbuds on the floor in front of my desk. It could be that I left them more negligibly close to the edge than I remembered doing, but I think not! What more, I awoke another day to find my laptop at a significant angle on my desk. Not a slight angle or a crooked angle but an askew-as-fuck position. It’s quite clever when you think about it. Do enough to cause annoyance. Once that’s accomplished, level up to sowing unease. God help me if my nocturnal fiend gets bored and moves up the ladder to distress.

I suppose I cannot blame the fellow for such activity. If I had the good sense, cunning, and opportunity I’d happily do the same to some other poor soul. I am much nonplussed that it had to fall on me to play victim in this sordid game. Good god, it’s reached nonplussed.

By the looks of it, 2019 is going to be a year of extreme vigilance and not a little agitation. Much of my holiday shopping this season has been entirely consumed by personal inquiries into home surveillance and trap-setting. My earnings from this year were splendid, indeed! Affording me a decent budget for a few minicams and some tripwire. Every night I will leave a trail of my socks leading the door of my bedroom and WHAM! And also OWNED! Who’s the corncob now, binch?

What was I talking about again? Oh yeah. Content sucked this year. It happens to the best of us. Stand up, dust yourselves off, and give it a better go next year. Peace and God bless.

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THIS BAN COULD BE YOUR LIFE

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It used to be that the idea of banning anything was ludicrous. Puritanical fervor was always outdone in the end by its own cultural shortsightedness and inattention to irony. What gets banned doesn’t go away; in fact it only gets bigger. Subjecting anything to censorship just makes the parts not seen more enticing, even important. Moreover, it gives even the simplest rebel the quickest route to doing the exact opposite of what the powers that be prefer.

But the tide has recently turned back in favor of censorship; or at least it has made would-be censors more courageous in speaking out. There is a vogue among the reactionary young in calling for new prohibitions against old bugbears: bad books, bad music, pornography, etc. Even the possibility of bring the “X” rating back to non-porn films is not out of reach. Gaspar Noé would love that.

The new Puritans are a sharp gang. Repeat the points of the first paragraph and they will bat them aside like day-old mayflies. They match certainty with a compelling counter-certainty: this society and all it holds dear are not granted. Put another way, “Nice liberal order you got here. Shame if it were to decay from the rot of its own permissiveness.”

Not that this is limited to a single ideology. Far from it. A very popular case for censorship comes from the allegedly respected and hardly reactionary web comic xkcd. “If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show cancelled, or get banned from an internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated,” goes the strip. “It’s just that people think you’re an asshole, and they’re showing you the door.” This sentiment matches up nicely with conservative fire-breather Willmoore Kendall: “One begins to suspect that the true American tradition is less that of our Fourth of July orations and our constitutional law textbooks, with their cluck-clucking over the so-called preferred freedoms, than, quite simply, riding somebody out of town on a rail.”

I’m not going to jump into this melee … yet. But the rejuvenated fury for banning has me thinking of something else … sort of related.

Every now and then on Twitter I see more than a few people tweet, with no small amount of pride, that someone else on Twitter had blocked them. More often than not it is the same serial blocker. It is an even greater point of pride when the blocking was allegedly faultless, with no prior interaction to speak of. It was worn like a mark of status — high status, that is. Like a scarlet letter turned to a gold star. Here, the mystique of being banned lives as though nothing has changed. Being banned for life from any space or by any person brings with it a strange sense of accomplishment. You, person who was banned, are dangerous; you offended a given institution’s or individual’s delicate sensibilities. Go you, you rebel badass shit-stirrer!

I’ve never been banned from anything, and so far as I know I’m not blocked by anyone. But I feel the emptiness of this low-risk, low-reward status. I want to make up the difference. I want to be dangerous. I want to be shown the door. I want to be banned for life.

The trick to being banned for life is picking the right place. You don’t want to aim too high at a place with such strict standards that being inappropriate is quite obvious and severely redressed: a school, a hospital, a church, a strip club, etc. You don’t want to aim too low at places like Chuck E. Cheese; or too dangerously like Six Flags — or Action Park, which will just get you killed.

After much deliberation I chose Olive Garden. It seemed the right kind of middle ground. I had it all mapped out, doing everything short of skipping on the bill. I would go there dressed slovenly, I would drink heavily, treat the servant abysmally, drop Italian slurs liberally, drop Portuguese slurs ironically, constantly demand breadsticks, eat more than half of my meal and nitpick it, demand another, and repeat. I would cap it all off with vomiting my wine all over the table and tipping a measly three bucks. The manager would have to come down on me. BANNED [from Olive Garden] FOR LIFE.

I did not puke, but I thought I’d made my best effort. Evidently not. I returned the next day with the same polite and reliable service as before.

Once the rage toward my steering wheel subsided, I got to thinking: what if I’m going about this all wrong? What if it’s not about where you’re banned from, but why you’re banned? Back to the drawing board. I’d waved off the strip club before but found myself reconsidering. Yes, I thought, this could work.

Friday night I roll up to the Frank Hague Center for Sensual Movement Arts (formerly The Fly Trap) with a copy of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution. The place, to use a certain vernacular, is poppin’. Carrying out my plan on the main floor is both too weird and too safe. I scope out one of the women looking for private dances. A blonde named “Isis” approaches. We make our salutations, go to a private area, I pay her in advance, she does her thing, then I take out my book and begin to read. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is blaring loudly. I’m reading about the raid on the Bastille and she doesn’t seem to notice until …

“Is that A Tale of Two Cities?” she asks.

“What?”

“By Charles Dickens?”

“What?”

“I haven’t read that since grade eight.”

“What?”

“Honours English.”

“Pour Some Sugar on Me” became “Everybody Wants Some,” so we convened to the “champagne room” to discuss the book at length, or for me to listen to “Isis” discuss it at length as I never made to into hono(u)rs English.

This not only failed, but backfired. Now I return to the club formerly know as The Fly Trap every Thursday to discuss a new book with not just “Isis,” but “Jade,” “Mildred Pierce,” and “Pythagoras” — and I have to pay all four of them. Being in a book club for free is bad enough.

We are currently on The Ballad of the Sad Café. At least Thursday is breakfast buffet night.

AN UNFINISHED LETTER

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Dear Eve,

Don’t be confused. I have not placed this letter in the wrong envelope. I am trying a new thing where I call you by a name that’s not yours. Rather than just whip up a grand proposal, I’ve decided to just do it. I will continue to do it, and pretty soon neither of us will remember a time when I hadn’t.

I had not gotten a response from my earlier letter, but I’m writing a new one anyway. It’s a bit boring at the lake. Oh, and I’m at the lake now. It’s no special lake, I don’t know if it is even named. My cousin’s family just has a house that is near it, they go there sometimes. The house sits on one side of a long main road and the lake is on the other side. But I’m being unfair to the lake. It’s nice, we’re just here off-season. It’s better in the summer and the fall, when the trees surrounding the lake have leaves on them. Now the trees look like custom-made spikes meant either to keep mutant giants outsiders like me out, or anything that’s already in in. Maybe both. I walk out in the morning, there’s always fog hanging over the lake and among the trees. Is that how fog is supposed to work?

I’m here with my cousin. I guess we’re spending Christmas here so we went ahead to get everything ready. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned my cousin. We don’t live near each other and we don’t have much in common. Until the rest of the family get here we’ve commandeered different halves of the house. I’ve taken the top half and he’s taken the bottom half, where he studies for the LSATs. Every time I see him, like at a wedding or the reunions, it seems he is always studying for the LSATs.

I actually had a specific reason to write you but I have forgotten it.

The lake—or the town where the lake is nearest—is about three hours from the city by train. My cousin flew in first from Kansas City, MO (I think) and we went up together. Nothing is really memorable of the ride up, except when we were stopped at a station I could see a sandwich shop or a bar a few feet from it. Two older men in coats of similar length, but one was dark grey and the other dark green, stood outside smoking and talking. They seemed to be pointing at a younger man in a shorter coat. They seemed to be making comments about him. It was weird because the younger man was staring at his phone and didn’t look very engaged with the other two.

I thought how cool it would be to live to that age and to be able to do that. I thought about seeing if my cousin (whose name is Mark, sorry) agreed, but I didn’t think he’d understand. Would you?

Now I remember! Last time we talked IRL you were going on and on about domesticating a fox to have for a pet. I thought it was a stretch because (a) you live in an urban area where even ferret ownership is unlawful and (b) come on that’s just crazy regardless. Well, I will now have that crow (to eat, I mean).

Like I said, the lake house (if it is a lake house and not just a house by a lake) is on a long outskirted road with lots of trees and few homes. A little ways up from our place is this woman who lives all by herself so far as I can tell. She’s about middle-aged. I see her walking along the road every afternoon. Even in a more heavily populated area she’d stand out because of her ratty fur coat and … her pet fox, which she carries on a leash skips happily in front of her on a leash. I don’t know how she did it. It doesn’t look like she has the ability to just nab a fox willy-nilly and train it to be her pet. IDK, maybe she does. Or maybe there’s a very exclusive service and you haven’t looked hard enough.

I asked Mark if he knew anything about her. “Not really,” he said. “I heard she inherited a lot of money. She married many times.” “How many times?” I asked. “IDK, a lot?” Then I asked if she hired someone to train her fox. “That’s not a fox. That’s a chihuahua she painted orange.” “Like, with spraypaint?” I naively asked. “Yeah,” he said. Then I said that that didn’t seem right. Mark just shrugged and said, “Free country.”

IDK, I don’t really buy it. Sometimes I walk up the road to where I think she lives, there’s a cabin-like house with chipped paint, a CB antenna, and lots of moss all over the place. It never looks like anyone is home. I’d at least like to ask what its name is. But I’ll say that it kind of reminds me of you. You have a similar essen spirit. Like, if you had the power to morph into an animal and with the added power to choose what kind of animal, I’m sure you’d choose a fox, and it would be that fox in particular. But just not domesticated, you’d be roaming free.

Oh, and I will call you by your regular name whenever we meet in person or in DMs.

“GOOD.”

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Said event, taken by me

The only time I was ever in the New York Times building was in the fall of 2013. It was, I think, a rainy night and they were holding an event. It had something to do either with all the art used for its Modern Love column or one artist in particular who contributed to it. There was a long line at the lobby to get in. After presenting my ticket I went up the elevator to the art department. All the artwork was displayed in the narrow, white corridor where the elevators let off, and where most of the guests were crowded. At one end of the corridor, in front of the head offices, was the alcohol. At the other end, on the file cabinet amidst the cubicles, were chips and salsa.

I’d found out about the event through Twitter. One of my friends, a graphic designer, had shared it. It was a time when I knew more graphic designers than I did writers, though that was in transition at the time. Or rather, I was in a time of transition. Earlier that year I had put out the fourth and final issue of Biopsy. I was still promoting it while at the same time resigned to the reality that the zine was effectively over. I remember it as a low point, but not my lowest over the past six years. Things were sort of looking up by then.

The point being, I was not invited and I knew no one there. I spent much of the night milling around at either end of the corridor. I talked to maybe one person for more than a few seconds. I looked only casually at the art on the wall, which ranged from instantly forgettable to eventually forgettable. Clearly going to look at art, which I could have done anywhere, was not my main motive for going.

“Events” are a staple in the life of a “creative.” If you fancy yourself creatively inclined—which can include creating things, commenting on created things, or persuading commenters to comment on a certain created thing—and you live in or around a major metropolitan area, you will have attended at least one. By that point I’d attended several different events. A previous magazine job, where I’d fallen into writing pithy—and extensively rewritten—blurbs about high-end alcohol got me numerous invites to private promotional parties at luxury hotels and restaurants. The most extravagant was held at the Plaza Hotel for a cognac that was $100,000 a bottle. I drank $1,000 of it—one glass—and was interviewed by a freelancer who wanted to write an article about the event for, I think, New York (it didn’t run). I was in my early 20s, working in a section of the industry where, in hindsight, I should not have been—and which still owes me $600, but that’s neither here nor there—I had no idea how to comport myself among the more seasoned hacks who worked in trade rags or at the legacy general interest titles like Esquire. In my childhood I developed an obsession with business cards, I collected them, but I never had any of my own printed. I did not know how to network and those with whom I did try to network couldn’t really use me. One time I just up and left in the middle of a presentation.

Local events weren’t even the half of it. Occasionally I would get emails from publicists offering press trips to Scotland or France or wherever related to whatever boozy product they represented. There were no apparent restrictions for such trips, and I believe glorified interns were encouraged to do this out of pity. But I turned each one down for the simple reason that I did not care and I still don’t.

Even the events where I fit in somewhat better were troublesome. I would go to zine fests, readings, and release parties, some held as far out as Red Hook. I could find easier avenues to be sociable and have far more substantial conversations with more than a few people. But I still felt like an ambassador from a small, diplomatically inconvenient hermit kingdom. I met some nice, interesting, and talented people. But that and the free beer were not enough to raise my interest or to ever try to be a part of the community around which the event was based. This was especially true at zine fests, that functioned within networks that included a lot of the same publishers and artists. I do not know if attending them with the explicit end of self-promotion (I persuaded more than a few to wave their arbitrary “no trades ‘til later” policies) actually constituted a gate-crashing transgression, but it felt like it.

I realize it’s a bit rich to complain about events. Even for people with average social skills—a rare commodity in journalism—events are just an extension of work. The free booze, the luxurious settings, and clever company contrast against the paltry and unstable nature of the job itself. You’re there to hang out or see something possibly interesting; you’re also perpetually on the hunt. The line separating journalist and serial killer is … not as stark as many would probably wish it to be.

But events remain especially perplexing for what I’m now going to call the “socially angular.” For them, going to an event is like walking into a life-sized diorama depicting just one more ecosystem where survival is the end goal. The socially angular tend to lack a talent for meshing into group dynamics, which makes them more sensitive to how they form and what they offer them. Where they know one or two people makes them feel like an anchor, while going to one where they know several makes them feel like a bottom feeder. My most acute experience of the latter was continuously running into an editor with a habit of never remembering my name. My greatest regret was belatedly thinking of a prank where I reintroduce myself to him using a different generic porn stage name—Harry Reems, John Holmes, Peter North, Jamie Gillis, etc. By comparison, walking into a room with total strangers, while daunting at first, at least gives them breathing space where the making it is theirs to fake. Some of the most illuminating and fun conversations I’ve had were with people I never saw again.

Moments like that are hit or miss. Nothing hit at the New York Times. I walked past the chips and salsa and into a conference room where the layout of the next day’s edition was tacked onto the wall. I weaved through the cubicles and noted a name of one of the designers and made a note to send her a copy of the zine later.

I think I lasted a little under two hours before giving up. I made my way back through the crowd toward the elevator, which was surrounded by people. As I pressed the button a man standing next to it turned to me and said, “Good.” I chuckled, thinking that he was sardonically commenting on the lackluster exhibit and extending solidarity. By the time I came back to the lobby I thought differently. Had the man meant the opposite? Had he scoped me out earlier and saw me taking up space where I did not belong? Was my exit lifting a burden for him and the crowd for whom he was presumably speaking?

I’ll never know for sure, but I let the ambiguity of that word stick to me. I’m forever “good,” doing only “good” things. “Good” will probably go on my headstone. The Oxford English Dictionary will make an entry for “good” and put my perpetually ambivalent not-smiling-but-not-exactly-smirking-either visage next to it. That will also be the definition. Because you know “good” when you see it.

Thus concludes this “good” essay.

A PLEA TO MY READERS

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If you’re anything like me, you despair at the current state of our so-called “discourse.” You’ve become a bit jaded and exhausted by the projectile flow of content, the anemic repetition of opinions, and the barking ferocity of polemics. You’ve become still wearier over where it all leads. Not to a better-informed public, alas, nor to a rejuvenation of civility, collegiality, or simple virtue. It seems that all anyone ever cares about these days is being shook, or shaking others. The prime objective of commentary is not to open the mind, but to jolt it, to own it, or to trigger it.

Maybe owning and exposing oneself to the risk of getting owned is someone’s idea of fun. I can’t say that it doesn’t sound in some way exhilarating. But just because base-jumping is, in the strictest sense, fun doesn’t mean it’s worth constant dedication. This is serious business, my friends, with immense stakes hanging in the balance.

The people to whom I write are not slow-moving whack-a-moles. They are as human as anyone, with hopes and fears and consciences all their own. They come to me out of need, I’m sure, as a refuge from the harsh hinterland of conventional “wisdom.” Here there are no tricks, there are no stunts, no affectations or posturing—only truth and clarity.

Some may say that I am ostracized for my commitment against sophistry. To this I cannot say, and will not say. For even if exile hadn’t been my fate by compulsion it would still be my fate by choice. For what I lose in partisan allegiance or back-patting clubbiness, I gain in mutual trust, honor, and integrity with you, dear readers.

As such, all opinions given here are not simply from the hip. They are not wild rootin’-tootin’ cracker barrel improvisations on what I prefer the world to be and its people to think. These are considered meditations, sculpted from the most cogent concrete rationales and polished by the most refined argumentative rigor. This is what every writer owes but few actually pay their readers. It is against this malaise—nay, this hostility—that I take my stand.

And so it is under these auspices that I inform you that you don’t actually need blood to live.

It seems that from time immemorial humanity has been taught of the central role blood plays in our biological maintenance. Whole industries, in fact, are fortified on this notion. They profit by our seeming need to have blood in our bodies, coursing through us, keeping our natural equilibrium in balance. But, friends, I’ve recently come to the opposite conclusion, and I’m here to awaken you from your Big Blood-induced slumber.

Naturally this conclusion was arrived at by the same painstaking analysis and examination I give to all of my professed views, but your time is precious, no doubt, and surely you want me to summarize my research to the best of my ability, and so I shall.

Like, come on, guys. Think about it. Really, go ahead. Only the most ingenious dystopian fantasist could dream up a story of people kept under control by a gooey liquid flowing inside of them. Nothing seems so opposed to the wonderful miracle of human greatness than being in the thrall of an unseen red terror. It almost makes me kick myself for not thinking of it first! Imagine the money I’d be making with my book, King Crimson. Readers young and old would be delighted by its imaginative faculty and by the willfully perverse logic of this topsy-turvy existence. They would no doubt cite it as prescient when similar bio-authoritarian trends start to encroach on the scene. But alas, it was not to be! The fantasy is but the reality.

I will not kowtow in the court of the Crimson King anymore. I implore you to join me.

Of course rejecting a truism you’ve known all your life is no easy task. But by looking into yourselves you’ll find that it is not impossible. Indeed, once you’ve accepted the absurdity of the circulatory system, there will be nothing but possibilities set before you. You will discover that your life’s force is driven by sources you never before considered. No one life force is the same for everyone, but that is the enduring blessing of being human. One person’s life force might be found in curiosity, while another might be found in anxiety. Still another could fuel him or herself through sadness, eating fried carbohydrates, or only buying products made by Louis Vuitton. But discovering your own life force is your adventure alone. I’m merely here to tell you that it can be done.

But you might ask: Why do we have blood at all? Fair. God’s design is mysterious indeed, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say it’s there for aesthetic effect. Blood looks very cool. Its hue is the most intense on earth outside of vantablack. Even a slight nick from shaving startles us into a reverie of red. But this is all according plan. Scrutinize the data enough and you’ll find that there is no conclusive proof of anyone dying from blood loss. This is yet another conspiracy orchestrated by blood enthusiasts and profiteers to keep us complacent. But the wheel of progress if ever turning, and soon we shall see this faulty diagnosis replaced by the more accurate “lack of hustle.”

What remains then is what to do with all that frivolous fluid swirling about inside of us. To that I say again: whatever you wish! The world is your oyster. Don’t want it anymore? Give it away! Give it as a gift to your loved one. Put it in a fancy vase or a mason jar. Put it in a lava lamp—those are in need of a comeback. Paint your walls with it. Trade it on the market as a commodity. Use it for cooking: mix it into risotto, marinate your steak with it, glaze it onto a cake or a doughnut, or ferment it. Soon there will be a whole new branch of sommeliers trained in judging a blood’s singular vintage.

But the fun is only just beginning. Once you’ve drained yourself of your blood, you are free to refill your veins with the fluid of your choice. Honey, rosé, shamrock shake, Tang, gasoline, actual piss and vinegar, embalming fluid, whatever!

Once we’ve usurped King Crimson, we will be free from an immense and lifelong burden. And from there we may bravely march onto the next frontier. May we all have the hustle to see our grandchildren fill their swimming pools and reservoirs with the blood of their forebears.