Black Ribbon Award

Month: January, 2019

BESPOKE HEMLOCK

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If you were to ask me, say, 10 years ago if I would have taken the side of Socrates or the people of Athens in the former’s trial, I would have given the most expected answer from someone of an intellectual or basically decent bent. Of course I’d have taken the side of Socrates, for it is the side of truth over sophistry, freedom over uniformity, virtue over vice, and curiosity over indifference. True, I could have taken the side of Athens, but infused that position with such irony as to make the forefather of all clear-eyed intellectuals rightly proud.

Ask me again today, however, and my answer would favor the people of Athens much more readily and be wiped clean of any put-on. Oh, how times change you. Now waist-deep in my 30s, Socrates’s grand project doesn’t seem very compelling. “Pursuit of truth” feels either like a futile craft hobby that leads to boredom and arrogance or a dangerous impulse attracting misery and trouble. In the long barren winter of my maturity, anyone who prizes the power of thought and the reach of ideas must accept that “corruption of youth” is a pretty substantial charge.

My conviction on this point only grows more resolute today when you switch out “Socrates” for “Alan Sepinwall.” Sure, Alan Sepinwall doesn’t have a lot in common with Socrates at first. He’s not as clever and has no sense of irony; indeed, he’s earnest to the point of agony. Like Socrates he has a deceptively casual style, though in this case it lacks those (likely Plato-inflated) allusions, dialectics, and turns of phrase. Socrates was an independent critic of ideas; Alan Sepinwall is an indentured critic of television. Despite these differences, though, Alan Sepinwall’s vast influence on scores of readers and writers drags grave concern over intellectual influence back out from its tomb; now standing outside our windows, draped in rags and chains, it practically begs us to act.

Ours is an age that finds the authority of the critic in a very precarious position. Making a living off of it was never as easy as the cultural nostalgists like to think, but it is much more difficult, even laughable, now that the internet offers the clearest proof of Harry Callahan’s opinion-asshole dialectic. Standing against this trend, however, is Alan Sepinwall, who has staked out a long and prosperous career as the leading media critic of our day. Surveying his career, his place in our culture seems almost destined. He started critiquing television while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, which got him hired to the New Jersey newspaper The Star-Ledger. He remained at the Ledger for 14 years before moving to HitFlix, later absorbed into Uproxx. Now he is at Rolling Stone. In every venue he has done the same thing: review and analyze the most relevant, substantial, and interesting television now on offer.

Sepinwall’s appeal is in his passion. Some critics are known for their derision; others are known for their advocacy. Sepinwall falls decidedly in the latter category. If he’s laid hatchet jobs against shows he hates, they shrink next to his many crusades for the shows he loves. He is a man of deep fixations that started in college with NYPD Blue. His skill in making The Sopranos palatable to his New Jersey readership vaulted him nationally. He became the golden voice of the platinum age of television. He is credited with saving Chuck and throwing life preserver after life preserver to Community. Shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men were not just uncommonly intense outlets of Sunday night diversion, but complex works of art, embodying the fraught character of our times, demanding active, close viewing. “If you wanted thoughtful drama for adults,” Sepinwall writes in The Revolution Will Be Televised, “you didn’t go to the multiplex; you went to your living room couch.”

Sepinwall’s message has proved persuasive; not just among television viewers, but among the media. While publications online and off routinely hemorrhage staff, TV reviewing—or “recapping”—is a solid mainstay. I don’t have any exact figures but I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that recappers are so profuse in the industry that their skulls may well fill a TV critic equivalent of the Capuchin Crypt. On multiple platforms, shows are recapped episode by episode, often in fathomless depth and excruciating detail. They are eagerly clicked-on and skimmed at the very least. It confers a new kind of authority; not only of the expertise of the writer but the discretion of the editor. Publications have the fair but arbitrary power to pick and choose what shows are worth their time. In July of 2017, The AV Club announced that it was ending its coverage of Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here because it did not live up to expectations. “Sadly, some of what the show has been attempting to do is exactly what I want out of a TV show,” the show’s assigned critic Jesse Hassanger writes, “at least in theory. While it does attend to some ongoing plotlines, I’m Dying Up Here allows its character focus to shift from episode to episode, and has yet to turn overly serialized.” In September of 2018, the show was cancelled.

You might look upon this development and see nothing but positives. Doubtless, you would surely say, the continued employment of writers of any sort is something for which to be grateful. For someone to cast aspersions on it, you would continue, must come from a place of deep bitterness. To which I would reply, fine, sure. I don’t deny that I am embittered by any number of things at any point of the day. Does my embitterment impact my judgment? Perhaps. But that would hardly change my conclusion, deduced by nothing more than raw logic, that good things can be bad at the same time.

Sepinwall may be pure in talent and intent, but he has nonetheless corrupted not just television viewers and the writers who imitate him, but the whole contemporary culture. People who fear the effects of this corruption are obligated to repel it. There are a few ways to do this. One, for instance, could mercilessly lampoon the whole affair as Aristophanes did. If only I had such ability! Alas, my toolbox is a smaller one, containing nothing more potent than good old moral censure. So I must trudge on, like a fusion of Polycrates, Robespierre, and Newton Minnow—but funnier and more handsome.

If I was tasked with prosecuting Alan Sepinwall for corruption, I would do it on two main counts.

The first count would be the proliferation of superfluous content. The internet has released a flood of language—among other things—unprecedented in human memory; yes, more significant than the rise of the printing press. Sepinwall’s efforts have only intensified the flood to drown just about everyone in words. Take all the episode recaps into a bundle for posterity. How many volumes would that make? Hundreds at the very least. And any good scholar would have to include the fringe blogs committed to Straussian esoteric readings of every hand gesture seen on The Bachelorette. So make that several thousand volumes. For a single person of even higher than average intelligence to give each piece his or her fullest attention would require an impossible demand on his or her time. Whole commitments to work, family, and health would have to be reduced. Society would come to a standstill; no, it would collapse far more quickly than it already has. Of course no one does that. But the material gets written anyway; it piles up in the digital store rooms never to be read, no usable data to be mined for advertisers. All is awash in verbal vomit.

The second count is the effect these words have, whether read or not. In general, TV recapping’s quality requirements are no different from any other criticism besides its speed of production—sometimes an hour after the episode being recapped airs. It is fluid, concise, funny, erudite, firm where it needs to be, impassioned where it can afford to be, and most of all smart. Some of the smartest writing may come from these recaps. But the more it is carried out, the duller the smartness becomes. All the wit, the insight, and the analytical precision dissolves into a fog of sameness. A sameness of aesthetics, psychology, and politics. A show that hits the ground running with positive notices seldom loses speed. One that abuses a collective trust never really regains it. Ultimately the glut of recapping creates a fevered atmosphere where cleverness is confused for smartness and enthusiasm is confused for wisdom.

The sameness of smartness almost makes you long for stupidity. Stupidity is like the lover you let get away because you did not appreciate its affections enough and just took it for granted. That kind of longing makes you think about stupidity endlessly and late at night, looking at its Instagram posts under your covers in the dark. Pretty soon you waste water in the shower masturbating to any object that comes into your head—a swivel chair, a spatula, the PanAm Board of Directors circa 1945—that will help you forget that in the end you had to settle for smart.

Sepinwall and his defenders will find such charges impossible to overcome, leaving only the manner of punishment to be decided. Obviously it’s not going to be a self-administration of literal hemlock. That is insane. Instead, think of hemlock as a useful metaphor. Everyone gets their own personal hemlock in the end. Bespoke hemlock, you could say. For Sepinwall this is easy. Once pronounced guilty of cultural corruption, he will submit to handing over his DVD player and whatever DVDs he owns, to discontinuing his cable and internet provider, and to destroying all his writing instruments. He will be given a VCR and a VHS of Thirtysomething, WKRP in Cincinnati, or Heaven’s Gate. He’ll probably spend a lot of time fishing.

Now you might be tempted to wonder where, exactly, this all leads, seeing as how the suppression of Socrates didn’t exactly impede the spread of Western philosophy. Dude, I have no fucking idea. The sophists weren’t known for their foresight and neither am I. They wished for nothing more than to dispense with a miscreant who was making their lives harder, which I think is an underappreciated virtue in this age. And who knows? Maybe this time the spirit of imitation that follows Sepinwall’s writing will carry over to his mandated self-abnegation.

In any case, what little I do know about the future is sufficiently encouraging: we’ll all be dead, no one will know how to read, and any sideways glance of a screen will be taken for the damned trying to escape Wrong-Prison.

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RECLUSION AS VOCATION

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It is a custom of our society to enforce a preferred mode of behavior and manners by way of counterexample. To show the likely outcome when members of a mass engage in an activity condemned by an institution with power over them.

For instance, it is generally frowned upon that people under the age of 21 engage in drinking alcohol; and it is especially discouraged when such people do so just before, during, and right after attending high school prom. To deter this vice, vigilant parents collaborate with schools, emergency response units, hospitals, and mortuaries to demonstrate the hazards of heavy drinking and driving, recruiting real life students to playact their own deaths in often gruesome and melodramatic fashion. The hard results of this endeavor are not altogether clear, but its appeal to the fear of adults and the morbidity of teens promises its endurance.

It is the same with our private corporations. Since it has been brought to the public’s attention that certain aspects of masculinity exhibit corrosive effects upon the social fabric, the male hygiene company Gillette sought to encourage greater awareness of the situation with an advertisement depicting their consumer base as trapped in a cycle of aggression, bullying, and catcalling.

But perhaps the most potent trove of social policing can be found in our journalism. In fact, it is safe to assume that both of the aforementioned examples were parented by the media. There isn’t much that the media won’t crusade against. There is, however, one item that is nearest-and-dearest to its collective heart.

“Strange, sad and macabre,” begins an article in People from 2014. It is about Andrew and Anthony Johnson, 63-year-old twins whose skeletal remains were found in the Chattanooga, TN home they shared, both sitting in their easy chairs. The state of decomposition indicated that they’d been dead for at least three years. Though police and family made “welfare checks” around 2011, they neither had keys to the house nor sufficient suspicion to break in themselves. No one in the neighborhood knew them.

The curiosity over the death of the Johnson twins had dried up not long after with no new updates, but there is no lack of similar stories making it to print and film. Meticulously reported and somberly composed, these stories depict people who disappeared so completely from the public that the public hardly notices. They retreat to a kind of voluntary imprisonment: in a rent-controlled apartment surrounded by walls of newspaper and empty takeout containers, walking over cat feces, and sitting in front of a TV that is never off. Such stories ostensibly present a mystery and stoke voyeuristic curiosity; but mostly they engender fear. This, these articles and documentaries assert, is what happens when you disengage and disconnect. You lose your energy and self-respect, you will be forgotten. Calls like these are not frequent, but they feel more common as loneliness becomes a more pervasive issue in our society.

It is a curious stance, though, to use recluses and shut-ins as the counterexample. Loneliness, even prolonged loneliness, is a temporary condition, and its abjectness is already pretty apparent to the sufferer. Through self-mastery and therapy, one who is lonely may be able to cure him or herself. Ultimately few if any lonely people are every truly shut-ins, and to say that shut-ins choose to shut in as we would choose a brand of coffee is not quite correct.

Reclusion is a stronger vintage than loneliness. It is denial, often a sweeping and total one, of so many popular ideas of how life is lived that it very nearly approaches a calling infused with moral import. Reclusion is at the same time less clear cut in how it occurs. I would not dare to speak officially for any who undertakes this practice, so in keeping with the aforementioned framework, I will instead offer a counterexample: the hazards of seeing and being seen out of the house. It requires making two smaller points that dovetail into a larger one.

The first is relationships. This is not to declaim platonic or romantic intimacy altogether. The problem lies rather in the relationship as a lifestyle. To get on in the world it is important to have a group and to be seen with it; just as it is important to have a significant other and to be seen with him or her. Such arrangements confer upon the person a sense of cohesion with the social family. The recluse may not be malcontented by this in spirit, but it is not willingly entered into for some reasons that may be valid. The modern social life is vast and active at the expense of depth. Someone in the midst of it will feel connected and integral but will hardly remember it after the fact. At worst, there is a struggle to distinguish one friend from another, or to parse over the commonality one shares with a loved one only to come up slight or empty. The line between friendship and busywork dissolves in such situations.

It is often assumed that the recluse abstains from all human contact, let alone intimate contact. This is not always the case. Only in the most extreme scenarios (a coma, basically) can one truly avoid intimacy. The chances a recluse has to encountering it are not totally deprived, but they may be reduced in scale and removed from convention.

The second is work. As with friendship, this is no slander against the work ethic. The work ethic suffers greatly in the new society, dominated as it is by the pure pursuit of money—or to use the politically correct parlance, a “career.” Such a pursuit may require one to work 10 jobs over the course of 15 years. One job may have no clear responsibilities while the next job might have numerous and conflicting responsibilities. Whether an abnegation or a demand of one’s energy and skill, this does not strike the recluse as a workable arrangement. He or she has no one way of earning income. True, some have the advantage of inherited funds that, when apportioned with extreme care, can prove sufficient for a long existence and require minimal supplementation. But others venture out from time to time to do odd jobs around their immediate community. Indeed, despite their self-imposed isolation, the spartan tendency of the recluse makes him or her more reliable to the community compared to the single striver of the wider world.

And so finally is the wider world. Whether or not it is a conscious position on the part of the recluse, the recluse gets nowhere without being significantly at odds with the culture into which he or she is placed. It will have dawned on him or her that not only is the state of culture vacuous and debased, but totally antagonistic. It is not exactly an evil culture, but it is hard-hearted and lacks empathy. It rejects compassion and tolerance in favor of convenience and uniformity. There are two ways to live comfortably within it: to be infected by its ethos or to be devoured by those who already are. It occurs to the would-be recluse that there is a feeling of disdain from the culture toward him or her and that that feeling is mutual. How long it takes to see those revelations depends upon the person, though it is almost always seen in that order.

The world does not take that rejection well. Pretty soon it loses patience with pathos and reverts very quickly to invective. The recluse is no longer a tragic figure, but an abscess: a fat, unkempt, sedentary, burdensome, vaguely humanoid organism. It bitterly shuns the entreaties of the mainstream way of life deep within the bowels of its parents’ basement. It subsists on a diet of Cheetos dust, much of it caked into its facial hair, while leaving the actual Cheetos for the spiders, centipedes, and crickets that make up its social circle.

The recluse of America will not likely take offense to this, for he or she will not have heard it. But to be a recluse is indeed to be subject to such misconceptions between willful exile and imposed isolation. On the contrary, the recluse tends to find occupation through more active means, not being crippled by society’s unmet expectations and depleted connections. Even the worst conceivable recluse has this advantage.

Ed Gein is considered one of the most notorious serial killers in America, whose legacy inspired such iconic works as Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs. This is a slight overstatement, however, given that Gein’s confirmed body count is only two; much lower than the 17 bodies accrued by fellow Wisconsinite, Jeffrey Dahmer (a fitting composite for the lonely if there ever was one). Much of Gein’s time, in fact, was given toward his hobbies. He was a natural and ingenious craftsman, creating his own dinnerware and jewelry, upholstering lamps, and tailoring clothes. That his crafting material happened to come from bodies he pilfered from local burial sites is not a little discomfiting (even if the turn of progress may yet neutralize that stigma in due course), but one cannot argue that he was listless or idle. Nor can one look upon so solitary a life and say with certainty that it lacked for people.

OCCASIONAL OUTBURSTS

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Touching Your Valve.—Power: everyone has it. If you think you’re powerless that’s only because you’ve been ruthlessly negged into thinking that way. Don’t. It’s horseshit. Deep down you already know this. Sure, the best-known forms of power—wealth, courage, sophistry, hotness, etc.—are in limited supply; that just means you need to get creative. Everyone has a power valve that needs to be prodded, but it is never in the same place.

Candor is a pretty cheap and effective power move. And by candor I mean withholding of candor. Contrary to our oversharing impulses of late, you don’t actually need to tell everyone every fucking thing. In fact, doing just the opposite has many benefits. Information is potent currency, and it cannot be given out willy-nilly like subprime. Think of it like welfare or grants, something that can be restricted by red tape specially cut. You have the power to discriminate, to compartmentalize, to keep some people in and many, many others out. When you tell someone something with an air of exclusivity, that person feels valuable and you can count on them for some real shit if real shit is foreseeable somewhere down the road.

You don’t even need to tell that person anything especially scandalous. You can say you forgot to take out your recycling this week with that air and they’ll think you’re letting them into an especially vulnerable space.

That doesn’t mean you should lie. Honesty is a virtue; candor is a craft.

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A Bad Tweet.—Writing is a lot like war: it’s awesome, it can get people killed, no one should go into it.

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#sponsoredcontent.—I worry about my lack of professional collegiality. Am I doing enough to give back to those peers whose work I most value? I get so caught up in my own work that I tend to tune out everyone else. It’s nothing against them, it’s just too distracting. Everyone’s great; or they’re at least fine.

But then there’s the whole nature of complimenting people publicly. It seems kind of shifty, like it’s not really meant for the people being complimented. And even when you mean it, so what? You spend 7/10 of the day being dismissive and droll. Technically, going out of your way to be earnest might make it more persuasive, but reality never works out that way, does it?

This anxiety won’t change anything, so here goes: Rachel Monroe is writing a book that should be worth checking out. Aaron Lake Smith has a great piece on tankies in Ukraine over at Harper’s. Here is Scott Beauchamp on modern office culture.

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Plz “Like” and Share.—Speaking of compliments, a friend of mine offered praise on a “recent” essay I wrote making a case for nuclear disarmament. I was confused because the only piece I wrote on that subject was published two years ago. It turns out that was the piece he was taking about and it was recently reposted on the publication’s Twitter account.

My friend was a bit disappointed, but I was quite delighted. My positions in that piece have not changed in those two years; and while I would write it somewhat differently today, I still think it is worth reading. Why shouldn’t the website repost a worthy piece? I can say this because I repost content all the time. It is often a little embarrassing to do so, but there’s only so much self-abnegation I can permit myself to feel when I am also my own publicist.

It doesn’t even matter that the stuff I sometimes write about becomes less relevant over time. That’s what style is for. I’m reminded of this whenever I pick up Lewis Lapham’s essay collection Waiting for the Barbarians, which focuses exclusively on matters pertaining to the mid-1990s. I’d say it’s a safe bet that literally no one gives a shit about George magazine, but Lapham’s elegant skewering of it still sings 24 years after the fact.

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Dead Birdwatching.—Tulsi Gabbard is never going to be President. I don’t care what Matthew Walther says, she can be as pro-life a Democrat as she wants, she has far bigger hurdles to leap over before that. (1) Going to Syria and hanging out with Assad, though kind of presidential when you see who actual Presidents have hung out with, was a bad look. (2) Her past unwoke opinions are probably just that, but no one cares. (3) Democrats suddenly want to nuke every outhouse and drone every wedding. (4) She talks like a murderbot. And (5) I am willing to vote for her. RIP, Tulsi 2020.

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Etiquette 101.—Having a post retweeted by someone you don’t know is a high compliment. Having that retweet rescinded after they carefully read the post is a fucking honor.

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Notes Preceding a Good Tweet.—I’ve been thinking about what kind of opinion I should have about Tucker Carlson’s now classic anti-market conservatism monologue. Everybody who is anybody has one; but it was weeks ago so in order to have one now it has to be good. For a while it seemed like it was never going to happen. And then, after many silent, weeping nights with no one else but God, it hit me like a light quickly approaching down a long tunnel.

Tucker Carlson’s monologue sucks, because it is not a monologue. It is a homily. Had it been a monologue would have been at least 90 minutes. It would have dragged us up, over, around, and through radically divergent points in time and perspective. It would have involved maybe three or four other characters with distinct voices. It would have had pull-down charts and maps. And you can take that to the bank.

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Scenarios.—Good-case: cool people will read this. Bad-case: Nobody will read this. Worst-case: Everyone and yr mom will read this.

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Of Clairvoyant Thumbsuckers.—This may possibly be a sign that I’ve been beaten into submission, but I’m coming around to Trump’s brash, inelegant manner on Twitter. In particular I mean his style of invective. I don’t think that it is used wisely or in reference to deserving targets; but in and of itself, its simplicity can be appropriated and applied for one’s own purposes.

Invective is a tricky art. We tend to think that the more florid and elaborate the insult, the better and more wounding it is. This is a mistake resulting from importation of Armando Ianucci’s humor. Perhaps you’ve noticed, in fact, how Veep tends to fall flat on its face trying to keep all its bitter erudition in place like spinning plates.

No, proper verbal abuse must be swift and efficient. People revel devilishly in a try-hard; and all the more so when the try-hard accidentally praises with overwhelming damnation.

There should be nothing wrong in calling someone “worthless trash” if that is precisely what he or she is. Nor is it vulgar to call someone “as dumb as a rock,” “the dumbest human on the planet,” a “certifiable moron,” “Pete Davidson,” a “genuine unparalleled imbecile,” a “sick and violently tragic loser,” or a “clairvoyant thumbsucker.”

True, Trump in his present capacity has greatly abused his privilege. I’m afraid there might not be much we can do to fix the damage he has done—even if it was he who appropriated from us. The best we can do is own it with greater care than he can ever give it. Not everyone in the world is a “slovenly fuckstick,” but doubtless there are a few who meet that criteria. It is just a manner of going out and finding them, you fucking idiots.

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A Positive Note.—ABC’s Single Parents is the best show on TV that isn’t Letterkenny. I don’t feel like I need to qualify that; it is simply the truth. And no, if you must ask, I’m doing fine. This is not a “cry for help.” I don’t need to be called upon by a “specialized aide” or put on some kind of crisis watch. Maybe if you watched the show you’d know that there is no need. I dare you, indeed, to resist its thoroughly normie charms. Trust me, I actually DVR this shit.

That said, I’d like to arrange to be physically restrained every Wednesday night at nine. Not because I am partial to that sort of thing, but because I just can’t watch Catfish anymore. No one wants to cancel it because people like me, who are terrible, are compelled to watch Nev playact empathy as he marshals every tepid train wreck to their logical and seldom satisfactory conclusions.

It doesn’t help that I have gained a reputation among my familiars as a person of a certain age who still watches MTV. I don’t necessarily think that that is wrong, per se, but it is becoming increasingly meaningless to do so. The programming only gets worse. True Life used to be one of the most interesting shows on TV, now every other episode is about social media or social media-influenced plastic surgery. Are You the One? is an exercise in mutual cruelty—for participant and viewer alike.

More than that, it’s pretty clear that MTV no longer has a hold on what youths actually care about. Like every other outlet, it follows their lead. Most popular culture emanates up from the college dorm to death’s door. You think a focus group-backed humorist created “Weird flex, but okay”?

EXPOSING THE SEX HOAX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A CYNICAL TAXONOMY OF CYNICISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WAR ON “THIRST”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So like a … a … Thirst Force?”

“That has a splendid ring to it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I’m glad you liked it.”

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

“Oh.”

“So don’t disappoint me.”

“Okay.”

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

“How nice of you to say.”

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

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

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

ON WEIRDNESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU DON’T HAVE ANXIETY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE GRAND GESTURE (A PARABLE!)

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a name?”

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

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

“%&^@!?<%*+#~,” the creature said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I found them.”

“You … found them.”

“Yeah, on the road.”

“Okay.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Are you gonna help me or not?”

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

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

“This’ll take weeks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Project … yeah. I understand.”

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

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

“Can you fly with those?” Debra asked.

“Yeah probably.”

“The left one is twitching a bit.”

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

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

The grand romantic gesture had not turned out as the man had hoped, but he soon recovered realizing that his new modification may broaden his opportunities.

After altering the rest of his shirts, the man set about taking and posting selfies at various angles. These received an encouraging amount of “likes” and comments, and soon he took himself back out into the world.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, yes. Sorry.”

Silence.

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

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

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

“Thank you, Father.”

Silence again.

“Now you tell me what your sins are.”

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

My confession?”

“Please take your time.”

“That’s not how this works.”

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

“What is this nonsense?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I … I can’t.”

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

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

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