Leisure and Existence and Specificity and Gratitude and Dangerous Games: a Birthday Post

Matthew Peterson on Facebook just now:

Sometimes I think the most sickening symptom of the disease of our era is boredom, especially among the young. As people get older they simply habituate themselves to addictive distractions or to the idol of work and thus they lose the symptom of boredom without curing the underlying disease. But young people haven’t fully corrupted themselves yet, and thus they still feel bored.

I can’t imagine ever being bored, and it breaks my heart to see young people who say they are. To the extent they are truly bored they are vulnerable to enslavement to addictive distraction or to lives of meaningless work for others. The whole point of education (never mind religion) is to develop a consistent interior life – to develop a mind that has woken to the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty on its own no matter what the “day job” or lack thereof, and therefore could never be bored.

And he quotes Josef Pieper:

The code of life in the High Middle Ages [held] that it was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restlessness of work-for-work’s-sake arose from nothing other than idleness. There is a curious connection in the fact that the restlessness of a self-destructive work-fanaticism should take its rise from the absence of a will to accomplish something.

This is just right.  Being bored=a kind of lack of appetite. The intellectual hunger is in my experience a distinctive thing that wants to eat books– not just single interesting-at-the-moment books, but books that taken together help you master a body of knowledge, help you start to see the overall pattern of the world.  This is something specific.

But for me it’s somehow related to and combined in a nearly indistinguishable way with the insatiable hunger to write and to explore my own city and to travel and explore other cities and to make things and to plan parties and to have people stay at my house and to have conversations with friends and to find out their stories and to do all the “leisured” things that one wants to do– this is just a hunger to be human, I think– to DO human; to learn and to make and to do projects and to explore.  The good of work is something else, and it is good; and there are aspects of non-work life that don’t really fall in to what I’m talking about above: family obligation that is obligation, and is good for being so; following through on commitments even when you’re not really in the mood, which is also a good.

But I’m talking about something else here: the appetite for the varied world– for the whole city, the appetite for finding out; the appetite for short- and long-term projects; the appetite for delight.

And it is an appetite that, like others, grows by what it feeds on. This is a birthday post and I am feeling grandiose because I am on my way to Boston and traveling, even just to Boston,  is one of those things that both satisfies and feeds this desire, and so, in my expansiveness and grandiosity I invite everyone to follow these instructions– this is my hobbit-like birthday gift to all of you.

Here it is: if your life feels flat or closed off or you feel as though you are missing something– you are. Pay attention to that! It’s good news– it’s a feeling like pain that motivates action; like a cramp that comes from sitting still for too long; it is your body and your soul telling you to be human, to do human.  So start.

Read something– not something to distract you but something that will take all of your commitment to understand.

Or read something that is so well done and beautiful that it makes you astonished and grateful that you are at the right time in history to be able to read it, and that you speak the right language to be able to understand it.

Write something that comes easily and fluently but that you had never given yourself time to write before: The fairy tale about a pair of children whose mother is sick, and while she is at New York Presbyterian with the doctor, they take a walk in Central Park and find that there is a wood there that is not on any of the park maps, and that that wood is in fact part of the Forest of Rhetoric, and in order to get back home they have to find the Tree of Porphyry, which is a real tree, and pick a single leaf from it which is their mother’s leaf, and which cannot be subdivided because she is an individual and not a species or genus…and that this somehow saves her; they bring her the leaf and she eats it and it saves her from non-being; it re-instantiates her in the world.

Tree of Porphyry

Or write something that is hard and that you are worried about getting wrong and while you are doing it, enjoy the fact that you’ve found out that there are things you can be wrong about, that your opinion is not as good as anyone else’s, that there are things to find out that take work and care.

Go walk to a new place in your city and stop in a non-chain store and find someone who has lived in that neighborhood for his or her whole life, or at least for fifty years, and ask that person to tell you a piece of neighborhood gossip that is at least fifty years old.

Participate in a new game that members of your family and their friends have invented called Red Hot Chain in which you take a chain attached to a hollow metal tube and heat it in a bonfire and then dip it in the lake to see what happens. (This game complements other games which my family has invented, the details of which I’d be happy to share, called Open Chest and Under the Raft) (Not clear what Josef Pieper would say about this.)


Find out the back story behind an old family photograph.


Help out with a friend’s birthday.


Meet some French sailors.


Play Giant Jenga.


Find buskers, or become one.



Text a friend to set a date for a party you will plan together, in which you will play victorian parlor games and invent new ones and make sure that your friends with kids are invited too, and that the kids have something to do; if they are old enough they can join in the tableax vivants and if they are homeschooled they will want to.

Identify, with the help of a friend, pro-Vladimir Putin graffiti in the loo of a restaurant in Gramercy.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 4.14.22 PM

Walk out your door and find out where your feet can take you.


And then take all the good and all the joy from everything you’ve done from the list above, and start a magazine, and write about it all, and I’ll write for you too, and what are you going to do with the gratitude you have for the world?  You’ve got to thank God; he’s the one who made it and made you and made you “capable of” him, and of the world, and who bought you back so that you could do your humanness right and not miss out, and if you don’t believe that, find out whether it’s true– because it might be, it might be, it might be… find out.

What is the thing you say when it is your birthday but you want to say happy birthday to everyone else?  Happy existence day to you all.  Happy haecceity. L’chaim.












Great Elegies in Literary History Whose Subject Is Now The Toast

A fragment of a potential contribution to Tara Isabella Burton’s The Wafer Blog’s ongoing (?) series, with no apologies to Wordsworth.
The Toast Is No More With Us
…So might I, clicking through each Twitter mention,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
And spy the Two Monks with some new Invention,
Or a Dirtbag take on a hero yet unborn.

Be Your Best Democratic Self

This is my proposed title for Patrick Deneen’s second-to-next book, after the Liberalism one.  Because the self-help genre consistently outsells the political philosophy genre, and democratic self self help is an obvious and necessary niche.

It would contain inspirational quotes from Emerson and Whitman, printed in large letters on pages with lots of white space; a set of Smile and Frown stickers that you can deploy as you see fit on things to express your judgment of them, and blank pages which you are supposed to use to doodle your feelings about what the General Will might be Willing these days (sparkly gel pens for doodling are included, in several different colors).  

But there is also, lest this all seem a bit lightweight, an appendix containing Robert’s Rules of Order, which will fix things.
You’re welcome.

The Chaiwallah’s Map



Let’s Start a Magazine

…four of the most beautiful words in the English language.

This one, developed in a text conversation with Maggie Kelly, would be a more or less conservative women’s mag, vaguely Christian. Think Verily, but not. Format, and devotion to the art of the listicle, would be similar. Problem is I can’t decide whether this would be mostly parody, or mostly almost-serious articles I actually want to write. Probably half and half.

Maggie’s contributions:

“Sixteen Cardigans That Channel Edith Stein,” “Ten Espadrilles That Scream Gender Realism,” and “How Switching To Pastured Milk Taught Me That We’re All Meant To Be Mothers.”

Other pieces:

“From Sleek to Sassy: Mantillas For Every Occasion,” “Your Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Very Large Unkempt Beards Sexy,” “Katharine Drexel and Therese of Lisieux: Who Wore it Better?”

(Investigative) “Top Five Female Foundation Heads Whose Manolos are Bought With Donors’ Money”

(Editorial) “Three Least Effective Things to Say to Your Pro-Choice Aunt at Thanksgiving.”

(Lifestyle) “Why it Makes Perfect Sense that All the Women at my Soho Barre Class are Obsessed With Objectivist Yoga Pants.”

(Interview) “Sieglinde’s Sisters: Three Women Who Identify as Alt-Right.”

(How-to) “Feeding Sinful But Intrinsically Valuable Striking Longshoremen on a Budget: Dorothy Day’s Guide to Domestic Economy.”

A piece cross-posted to City Journal: “Broken Window Treatments: Ten Ways to Reduce Street Crime Through Decorating.”

There could be a regular column called Ask Gertrude, where people write in and Gertrude Himmelfarb solves their problems for them: “Dear Gertrude: I think my country may be doing the Enlightenment wrong. How can I tell for sure?”

And if the mag ever ventured into book publication, the first title is below:


Antisocial Media

“Nobody but the most sorely misguided of citizens becomes a Morris dancer in order to overthrow capitalism, whereas many a feminist has greeted the prospect with acclaim.” –Terry Eagleton, in a Commonweal essay, from the latest issue. And I would link it here because it is very, very good, except that I didn’t read it online.  And I am pretending that it is only available in print.

Here’s how I read it: my dad mailed it to me, through the U.S. Postal Service, after having read it himself, in the print version of the magazine, to which he subscribes.

To all who think that the print magazine is dead: no.

Supplementary note: this essay is worth getting ahold of especially if you have been subjecting yourself to Dave Eggers’ The Circle, which I have. Reading the essay, in analog form, recommended by my own personal father, and not by an algorithm, was deeply therapeutic.

Also you should all read The Circle. On some level I wish every student at Harbor would read it, because they are terribly unthoughtful about their use of social media. I was geeking out about it to the school librarian earlier. But it is way beyond R rated… but the good may outweigh the bad…

But I am not actually tempted to get off social media by it, because it makes me realize how differently I use it than the way it’s portrayed in the book. I don’t use it to garner large amounts of Likes; I’m not sure that posting about Terry Eagleton essays will ever be the most effective way to do that. I use it to have conversations with people whom I have come to care about. A single comment from someone I know, which helps me understand reality better and challenges me to choose better, relationships that develop over time… that’s how I’ve experienced social media.  Essentially, my use of social media has been profoundly anti-democratic.  And this may be the best self-check for how you are using it: Do you care about the number of likes, or shares, or do you care about the specific people who comment, who talk back, who like or share? Do you care, in other words, about people, or about data?