A Scrolling Phone Gathers No Moss
Introducing Mostly Myth
Whether through our media narratives or the inherited beliefs of our tribe, we are all enveloped by mostly myth. As a long-time teller of tall tales, I’ve always held the conviction that the illusions of fiction are the most powerful medium for unveiling the truths and mistruths of reality, or at least for giving us fresh eyes by which to assess them.
This belief in the revelatory power of myth, fable, and fairy tale motivates this newsletter, which (mostly) shuns four commandments about online writing:
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THOU SHALT SPECIALIZE
The first dogma dictates that one must laser in on one area of inquiry and expertise. I reject this glorified factory worker mode as the exclusive model. Here, the zeitgeist will be of the Renaissance Man, of ranging along the matrix rather than narrowing into a tunnel. Explorations here will be haphazard, by teleportation and time machine. Sure, my dials may glitch and the port of call may change without notice. But even if you lose a finger enroute or gain an extra one, even if my destination disturbs or my company unsettles, I guarantee you uncommon sights and travel in style.
THOU SHALT CODDLE
The second article of faith demands you not trouble the reader. Shiny, easy, and bitesize. Bulleted lists over paragraphs (I recognize the irony of numbering this). That’s the alleged gold standard for online writing, which echoes the scrolling headlines and sugar cubes of corporate newscasts. This may indeed be valid when you offer only fast food, when you ask others to chew the same cud and travel the roads most taken. But I believe in you, dear reader, I believe in your gray matter. The mind strays only when bored. Besides, piling on to groupthink is a fool’s errand, for one decent A.I. already now does the work of a billion hacks. The mind suffers enough distractions. My posts will be more substantial. More, I hope, nourishing. This place is more gym than massage table. Few happy endings here, alas. Here, you leave harder than you came in.
THOU SHALT CHATTER
The third gospel is that a creator must be an omnipresent chatterer on the Hydra-like array of social media platforms (leaving aside the outlying Pynchons and Salingers of the world). Not only am I too indisposed and self-conscious for that but I will also inevitably disappoint with my prattle. And I’m sure I’ll be doing enough soapboxing and cockadoodling here as is. That said, I’m not blind to this commandment’s pragmatism and relevance for reaching more people. So rather than default to my usual comfort zone of snooty abstinence and boycott, I hope to soon participate in these social media platforms in a more colorful way that suits my sensibilities. Until then, though, you can find me (probably prattling) on the X formerly known as Twitter HERE.
THOU SHALT PEDDLE FACTS
The fourth and final member of this quadrinity to be blasphemed is the doctrine that fiction is only for effete navel-gazers. To this regrettable conclusion, the history of humankind respectfully objects. Storytelling is no fad, and though it comes in countless forms, from cave paintings to tv shows, its foundational one in word, whether oral or written, delivers the most revolutionary and transformative electroshock of them all. I’ve found that in adept hands, the right words in the right order stand the hair on my arms, sharpen my vision and, when warranted, knee me in the gonads. This may sound hyperbolic and hammy. It is. But it’s also true.
As far as politics, expect no tidy ideology here. Walt said it best: I am large, I contain multitudes. I’ll hopscotch from left to right and right to left. Such incoherent political labels have degraded into nothing more than triggers for well-trained attack dogs, so better to be water than sludge. I invite you, too, to leave any tribal headgear at the doorway. For those who can’t, some tales will unnerve, even inflame. One’s paladin is another’s false idol; one’s sacred cow, another’s pig with lipstick. But while I may occasionally stage assassination attempts against your Caesar or try to topple one of your sacred cows, please know I do so in an animating spirit of love and joy, for my hope is that my Substack, above all, invigorates. I aim to provoke, not offend.
So why launch this on September 11? It is, of course, a date every American knows. Like many others, I can trace the birth of my political consciousness back to this day, 22 years ago, when I watched the planes crash and the towers fall. Before that, I had been, for the most part, an unpolitical animal. As a 14-year-old, I watched the CNN spectacle of the First Gulf War with the same moral and intellectual care one devotes to a fireworks display. Fast forward to the post-9/11 Second Gulf War and even a whiff of news would launch me into histrionics at the breezy jingoism of our politicians and media.
But what mostly spurs this kickoff date is the original 9/11, which occurred a half century ago today: the September 11, 1973, coup d'état of the elected Salvador Allende government in Chile by General Augusto Pinochet. This grim, not-so-golden anniversary of conflict and upheaval, as with that of the hijackings, seems a fitting starting block for dark fairy tales. Also, a CIA-backed military overthrow of a democracy over alleged Soviet alignment and that oft-invoked “communist threat” seems relevant to the news of our day considering the U.S. has lately been arming neo-Nazi militias and escalating a dangerous proxy war in Ukraine against Russia. I told you I would hopscotch.
But I have primarily chosen this day, the fiftieth anniversary of the Chilean coup, for its symbolic relevance, as I am now staging my own kind of coup (not to be misconstrued as any endorsement of Pinochet’s mutiny and despotism). You see, eighteen years ago, I began a monthly blog called Fourth Night. It mostly consisted of essays and photography posted on the fourth night of every month on subjects as various as Cypriot boot camp, the Lebanon War, Hungarian massages, and salvia nightmares; in 2009, its high-water mark, it also played host to an online literary reality show with a modest but devoted audience. But I soon abandoned the website, ditched social media, and withdrew for the next decade to work on several novels that had been irrefutably proving themselves black holes.
I never thought I’d ever liken myself to Pinochet, even in a sardonic, circumstantial way, but here we are. Today, in a coup de moi, I am ousting FourthNight.com, my online home since July 4, 2005.
It is, no doubt, cruel to kill Fourth Night so soon after its eighteenth birthday, now that it’s turned of age to play the lottery, get a tattoo without parental permission, buy fireworks, and consent to sex with adults. But then again, it’s timely, as it’s now also of age to move out of its home, change its birth name, buy a gun, and donate its organs (they’re on ice, darling, rest assured they’ll be used). Time for a fresh start. Not just a Reboot but a System Restore. One death, another birth. R.I.P. Fourth Night. Top of the morning, Mostly Myth.
This Substack feels like the right way to relaunch. For better or worse, I’ve always had a kneejerk aversion to established doctrine and institutions. Sure, they can bring expertise, quality, and experience—all good things—but by virtue of their entrenched power with time they also grow less nimble, eye innovation and disruption as attempted coups, and ultimately calcify into the same complacent tyrants they’d once so deviously dethroned. It’s not just the batshit crazy trials of parenthood that prompt fathers to keep trying to kill off their infant sons in the Greek myths.
For once, I’m not going against the tide. It’s now a minority who does not find establishment institutions and their mouthpieces derivative, specious, and self-righteous. And what greater establishment is there for the writer than Big Publishing? Like its corporate counterparts in politics and media, the establishment publisher is fraying and eroding, an end-stage empire facing down its nearing irrelevance and flailing in its behemoth dying throes (this overstates it, but there’s no denying they’re on the ropes).
Whatever stage of end-stage the gatekeepers may be at, there’s no question technology is usurping their power. They will, of course, try to hijack said technology as they always do (CBDC, anyone?). But in the meantime, here we are, with essential tools on hand. All my writing onwards will be here exclusively. I write. You read. No middleman required. And who knows, if this works out, maybe some of my shelved manuscripts will have their place and time before I do. I may not have knocked on enough doors, but I’ll now be erecting my own.
I used to console (delude) myself with the knowledge that the world makes a lousy judge. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Moby Dick ruined Melville. John Kennedy Toole killed himself before his persevering mother got A Confederacy of Dunces into print. But using this as a crutch for posthumous fantasies or to excuse inaction is a death wish. I’ve done enough of that. I’m now ready to start working the street corners. No pimps, no shame, just hustle.
The closing line of Tennyson’s Ulysses—“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—has always galvanized me, especially its final three words: not to yield. I thought I knew what those words meant two decades ago. But I had no clue then. And I’m sure a few more decades will reveal I still don’t. That’s just fine. If Sisyphus can do it, I can too. I only hope that watching my mossy boulder roll down the hill gives you as much pleasure as it does me pushing it up.
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