БƗƗҚ.16 // Good Goodbyes

For Michael and Jan

Well, reader, we have arrived at an end of sorts. This newsletter began as an outlet for my noticements and musings that had previously been satisfied through long winded email chains with a few of you and impromptu lectures at the dinner table to Katherine about what I had learned on Wikipedia that day. I set myself the finite goal to write once a month for a year, knowing that the vast chasm of open endedness would render the act of starting nearly insurmountable.

On December 31st and now in the 16th edition, I can say that—despite my best efforts otherwise—it was a success. I certainly wrote more than I would have otherwise, far more people are receiving this final edition than the first, I have received some nice feedback along the way, and the list of things I want to write about is now longer than it's ever been. Most importantly, there were a few moments writing this newsletter when I felt like I encountered something approaching my own voice. Indeed, some of my happiest memories from 2020 have been falling down internet rabbit holes, only to emerge a few hours later in a sea of browser windows—each with 25 tabs open—to begin the work of wrangling together something coherent and worth sharing.

I think that my best writing happened when I was able to detach myself from any particular desired outcome, though this admittedly remains harder than it seems it should. A routine helps, as does listening to Susumu Yokota and hiking in the White Mountains, but my most reliable path out of a rut was simply remembering that I am writing to you—not a general you, but a you in particular. This newsletter is little more than a cobbled together quilt of things that I wanted to tell somebody, and in a year that I saw far fewer friends than I ever could have imagined when this all started in January, I’m very grateful to have had this outlet to be near you. So thank you. 

Is it the end? Probably not. As I mentioned, the number of topics I want to write about has gotten longer as the year has progressed. Scanning through my running list of ideas, many questions and half-thoughts still stand out: “There are $45bn of outstanding gift cards in the US...Allen Iverson + the NBA dress code of 2005...why are there so many train emojis?...an Irish Court recently ruled that Subway bread is not legally bread...shrink-wrapping dinosaurs...clowns copyright their makeup by painting it onto eggs…”

Ok I guess I can just share this one now. There is an agreed upon understanding that clowns must have original makeup, and they trademark their look by painting it onto an egg and submitting it to the Clown Egg Register in London. (Source: @jo_hauge via Twitter)

On the other hand, I have made a concerted effort over the past five years to give people and places and things the goodbyes that they deserve—good goodbyes, as I’ve come to think about them—and what happens with this newsletter after today is sort of irrelevant right now. I set out to do a thing and the thing is done. So, in wanting to commemorate this issue with some sort of good goodbye, I found myself thinking about two people who passed away this year who each had an impact on how and what I write. As I thought more about them, a particular quote of each of theirs bubbled to the surface, and I’d like to share them with you. 

“I am, though, chiefly attracted by the aesthetic of empire: its feel, its look, its human passions, the metaphysics of its power, the sense of it, the intuition—its ships too, and its horsemen and the dust of its high veld, and its distant trains streaming across the Punjab plain…” - Jan Morris

“Be ruthless with systems; be kind to people.” - Michael Brooks

The first is a quote from Jan Morris, the Welsh author and historian who passed away on November 20 at the age of 94. I can refer you to the Guardian’s obituary for more about her incredible life; I always admired the simplicity of her bio as she wrote it:

Jan Morris was born in 1926 of a Welsh father and an English mother, and when she is not travelling she lives with her partner Elizabeth Morris in the top left-hand corner of Wales, between the mountains and the sea. 

The quote comes from the introduction of the first book of hers I read, Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress, which is the first in the Pax Britannica trilogy on the rise, height, and fall of the British Empire. Jan’s nonfiction work was deeply alive with fragrance and gossip and lust: the basic thesis of Pax Britannica as I understood it was that in order to understand something as singular as the British Empire, you needed to allow yourself to get caught up in it. Sometimes, the fabric of a soldier’s uniform told you more than the description of a battle ever could: I can vividly call to mind the image of a certain type of South African thorn getting stuck in tartan kilts of the Highland Brigade during the Second Boer War.

Crucially, Jan believed that trying to understand something by indulging yourself in the feelings and emotions of it was not akin to believing in it yourself. “But what about the railways?” may be the most quintessential trope of English apologism, and yet Jan could write with such wonder and amazement that I recall shedding a few tears while reading about the construction of the Indian Railways, all the while knowing it to be a violent exploit designed primarily to loot natural resources and move British troops across an expanding empire.

The second quote is from Michael Brooks, a writer and political commentator who demonstrated a deep compassion for humanity and a seething loathing and distrust of the corporations and governments that shape our world. Michael and I went to college together and shared a thesis advisor. I remember him approaching me after our first class together senior year and proposing that we study together. I could sense that he was primarily interested in people for what they thought, not who they knew or where they came from or how they dressed. Growing up in a community rife with superficiality and posturing, I found this both disarming and admirable. 

Michael and I had a very successful working relationship during our final year of college, but we didn’t really stay in touch afterwards. Over the next decade, he slowly reentered my life as a public figure, appearing at first in retweets on my Twitter timeline, and then as a guest on some web shows I knew about, and then on his own show interviewing Lula, and eventually on a flyer I saw for a panel on January 28 of this year about class warfare and the future of left politics. I biked the mile up Cambridge Street to Harvard to see him and we exchanged numbers afterwards, agreeing to get together for a beer the next time I was in New York or he was in Boston. This will never happen, as he died suddenly of a blood clot on July 20 at the age of 36. 

I never met Jan, but I did write her a letter in early 2017, ostensibly because I had recently thought of her while driving over the Quebec Bridge, a early 20th century steel cantilever bridge built in the same style as many others across the Commonwealth from Edinburgh to Calcutta to Brisbane. I think I was also interested in testing a channel of connection: like Queen Elizabeth, Jan was a living and breathing link to a world that was quickly fading over the horizon, and I was curious if I could access it, if only to just say hi and thank you. Just two weeks after sending the letter to her agent in London, a square envelope arrived in my mailbox addressed to me in a hand that was both shaky and full of flourish, with a rainbow of stamps featuring the profile of a young Elizabeth in the upper right corner partially blotted out by the black ink of the Royal Mail. The card Jan selected featured on the front a photograph of a Common Blue Butterfly on a Hardy Geranium, the English description appearing after the Welsh (Glesyn Cyffredin ar Fynawyd y Bugail Gardd). She addressed me as “Grif Peterson!” and wrote a few lines of thanks and gratitude. Her letter ended: “Forgive the awful scrawl - the infallible sign of creeping senility! Never mind, it’s been great fun while it lasted!”

Thanks for reading (and happy new year),

-- Grif