Christmas Letter 2014

Dear Everyone,

This year's letter has been a tough one to nail down.

We had a banner year. 2014 up and tattooed itself all over our lives. New jobs, new friends, new priorities. New possibilities revealing themselves. The year showed us what we could be, what we could do. Then it ended by reminding us of what we already had.

My maternal grandmother died early last month. The wake of her passing was enormous, even if the fact of her death was an overdue mercy. We gathered together in that wake, held each other and wept. And laughed. And ate. And then I wrote you a letter.

Just a few weeks later, my paternal grandfather died too. Just like my Nanaw, his death was a mercy, and just like my Nanaw, he left behind one hell of a wake. He left a hole in things. So again we gathered and held and wept and laughed and ate. And then I scrapped that letter and wrote you another one.

This morning I came to work to discover that a friend and coworker, a 33-year-old husband and father, was killed in a car wreck the night before. He left a hole in things too, one we weren't braced for. So I scrapped that second letter and am starting over again.

I'm unsure of what to say.

My temptation when I write these is to wrap a tidy little bow around things, to shoehorn the events of our lives into some kind of theme. But however comforting that may be to write or to read, those lives defy an effort that small and limiting. It feels dishonest even to try. Losing so many drove that point home.

But it's not just the barrage of loss and tragedy. It's everything, every mark on our lives, good and bad. Each one a single drop, some bigger than others, but none of which is easily contained.

I can't get my head around the sheer mass of all those drops, even just from this year: Loved ones lost, loved ones gained. Corners turned. Chance encounters that rearranged everything. They leave me with no neat little gift to give you. They leave me gobsmacked.

A single life is an inscrutable, baffling, insane thing. There is no order to it, no theme. There are only those drops, added one by one to a great, churning sea of longing and laughter and fear and all-too-brief satisfaction.

The chaos of all that churning is living, moving art. It seeks infinite rearrangement, and that means infinite possibility.

And therein lies our hope. Because as long as the chaos holds, as long as the sea churns, the possibilities don't run out. We can still do more. Be more. There is still time.

There is no map for this. All you can do is wade in, see where it takes you. Maybe keep an eye out for anyone who looks like their arms are getting tired. It can be terrifying as all hell, but it's also pretty damn thrilling, and I am discovering that even that terror is a gift. Even the heartbreak.

We hope your year has been a good one or, failing that, that it has laid the groundwork for good things to come. We couldn't stay afloat without you, and for that we thank you and love you and will be certain to sacrifice the small forest creature of your choosing to Zalgo, the Nezperdian Hive Mind of Chaos. Or maybe we'll make pie.

2015 looks to be at least as terrifyingly full of possibility as 2014. I propose we hold hands.

Masturbation Monday

Nick Thune's review (sorta) of "1st of Tha Month" is kind of amazing. Read it.

Then read this review (sorta) of "First Wives' Club 2", which is also pretty great.

The only reason I grouped these things together is because they both have "first" in the title, and I like to celebrate the small things. Even though that's the only thing they have in common.

Racially Pure Pastry

Mildly fun curiosity this time. Let's talk about Sir Francis Galton.

Galton was a lot of things, a polymath. He made some significant contributions to statistics and mathematics, which we'll get to in a second, but he's possibly best known as the father of eugenics. Galton was a cousin of Darwin's who took his findings on animal husbandry and breeding down a predictably shitty, racist, classist path.

The man advocated for the Chinese to take over Africa because they were, in his view, better. He didn't think the lower socioeconomic classes should have the rights of the successful, including the right to breed. He was, in the parlance of a friend, a shitbag made of dicks.

One of Galton's more curious discoveries transcended those prejudices, though, when he conducted an experiment at a county fair. Several hundred locals were trying to guess the weight of an ox to win a prize, and none of them came close. But when Galton gathered their submitted guesses and studied them, he found the median was less than ten pounds off, and the mean was essentially perfect, off by just a pound.

This is a weird result, when you think about it. A bunch of people making really bad guesses, many of them with no expertise in raising animals, collectively made a perfect estimation of the weight of an ox.

It's a credit to this bigoted shitheel that he didn't just dismiss the result as a statistical fluke, but actually published it and cited it as an unexpected phenomenon worthy of study: crowds can be smarter collectively than the individuals of which they are composed.

That finding was one of the major milestones on the path to what would become the field of study known as emergence, the idea that complexity arises from groups of simple individuals that are themselves incapable of that complexity. Many people think that intelligence and consciousness are themselves emergent phenomena: just get enough neurons firing, and consciousness will happen...somehow.

A really good overview of emergence (including Galton's story) is in this episode of Radiolab. It's one of my favorite hours of radio ever produced, and it covers emergent behaviors in populations of fireflies that blink in unison, business districts in New York City, Google's search ranking algorithm, and beyond.

But that's not why I wanted to write about Galton. I wanted to write about Galton because motherfucker figured out the best way to slice a cake.

Which doesn’t quiiiiiiiiite balance out being a proto-Nazi, but is something of a start.

(Note that the rubber band really only works if you use fondant instead of buttercream frosting on your cake, which if you do, you’re actually as bad as a fucking eugenicist.)

The Boy in My Pocket

Sicktimes as a boy I'd lie quietly and let my mom run her hand over me and sing I Am a Promise. I wouldn't dare move too much for fear of letting on that I might not be quite sick enough to merit the attention. I did not know that parents are all too happy to join you in the lie, provided you do not push it.

Lying there with her hand on my back or belly and her lips on my forehead was bathing in need and quiet and you-poor-poor-dear. I would pretend to be asleep until I woke up later, confused.

Then I became a young man and I kept that boy in my pocket. When I was alone I would take him out and make him tell me stories of spacemen and giants and remind me of the old expeditions we took with Frog up his underground stream where we would catch lizards and snakes and poison ivy.

I didn't dare let him go, and I didn't dare show him to anyone. After awhile I didn't bring him out so much. I forgot to feed him every day.

Then there were children in my family, and then I made my own boy and my own girl, no more real than he, but of the flesh-and-blood sort a grown man could be excused for playing with. For them I found I could bring the boy back out and introduce them.

I still have him right here in my pocket, next to Molly's watch and my slab of meteorite. These days I don't always need to wait until I'm alone to let him out. Sometimes I introduce him around. Particularly if there are other children or animals for him to play with.

Jack has a fever. He played it with me just as I did with my own parents, and I played along. I whuffled in beside him at bedtime, put my hand on his back and took his temperature with my lips. We lay there, he and I, and I did not even dare to sing to him. He finally broke the spell, yoinked out of our reverie by an urgent question:

"How long do you think it takes carrots to grow?"