Dear Reader (may your holiday weekend be free of fornicating squirrels),
Let me offer an early Happy New Year!
Now with that out of the way, let me forthrightly declare that New Year’s is the worst “holiday”—and it’s not even close. Say what you will about the most familiar holidays imposed on us by Big Greeting Card, they actually celebrate things worth celebrating. Fathers! Mothers! America! The Star Wars franchise (okay, that’s a close call given Jar Jar Binks and Ahsoka)!
What is New Year’s celebrating? The turning of a page on a calendar. We made it another year! Of course, that’s true every day if you start the countdown 365 days ago. Well, that would be arbitrary, you champions of annualized crapulent bacchanalia might say. Look, I’m all in favor of looking for reasons to have a drink. But let’s be honest, it’s a new year everyday just as much as it is always 5 o’clock somewhere.
Let me just ask you, strawmen I just invented, what the hell do you think the current date is? I don’t mean to sound like Neil deGrasse Tyson, but it’s not like the Bureau of Weights, Measures, and Machines that Authoritatively Ping (they updated their name in 2017) declared that January 1 is the “Go” square on the celestial Monopoly board. Seriously, New Year’s Eve might qualify as the first pseudoevent.
The earliest record of a New Year celebration is from 2000 B.C. in Babylonia, and they celebrated that on the vernal equinox, which back then was on my birthday, March 21 (“March”—and “my birthday”—might not have existed yet, but the equinox certainly did). The Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians celebrated on that lesser equinox in the fall. And the Greeks smashed plates and did shots of grappa on the winter solstice. The Romans imposed this January 1 thing at the point of a sword. Look at all of you quislings, bending the knee to Roman settler colonialism!
No other holiday combines the three things I hate most: existentialism, getting bumped in packed bars, spilled beer on my shoes, social pressure for “date nights,” TV specials with the worst people pretending to have a great time, staying up later than I want, waiting in a line to pee, watching performers I’ve never heard of lip sync songs I don’t like, glitter, trying to get reservations at places I don’t want to go to in the first place, forced enthusiasm by very large crowds, and celebrating accomplishments that require no effort.
Did I say three? Whatever. Let’s take the first and the last two. While I’m ideologically and philosophically a modernist—i.e., I like science, markets, democracy, reason, inalienable rights, the rule of law, and (if we ever sell The Dispatch for enough money I can afford one) state-of-the-art Japanese toilets—I’m temperamentally and aesthetically a Tolkienist or Chestertonian. I like coziness (Gemütlich), myth, romance, tradition, curses, legends, superstitions, ontological contradictions, forgotten books, richly adorned serif fonts, ancient trees, mysterious scrolls, enchantment, Old Things and other Capitalized Concepts, quirkiness, custom, Cathedrals, unexplainable jokes, cobblestone paths covered with moss, old houses the neighborhood kids are afraid of, and fences no one knows the origins of. I tend to dislike right angles, brutalist and other forms of modern art and architecture, sterility (outside of hospitals, kitchens, and bathrooms), super-efficient sources of heat, eating solely for nutrition, planned communities, and politics as the crow flies.
I think it was perfectly fitting that Evil incarnate in Time Bandits mocked the Supreme Being for the universe he created: “If I were creating the world I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day 1!”
Now, again, I don’t want to go back to medieval times (no matter how plentiful the Pepsi was). I like modern dentistry, air conditioning, and antibiotics too much. But Max Weber had a point when he said, “The fate of our times is characterized by intellectualization and rationalization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”
The calendar was one of the first great tools of disenchantment. It is a scientific artifact. It helped demystify one of the fundaments of Nature: time itself.
Before the calendar, the passage of time was a profoundly mysterious thing. We may have had a good guess about when the next season was due or how old Uncle Grok was, but it wasn’t anything like an exact science. The calendar imposes rationality and, hence, predictability on the fourth dimension. I’m glad we have calendars, but I don’t worship them. Making the mere passage of time into a celebration is coldly sterile and arbitrarily manufactured to me. You might say, “What about birthdays?” Well, yes, they celebrate the passage of time, but the object of the celebration isn’t a unit of measurement—it’s a real human being. New Year’s clears the field of any meaningful object of affection other than ourselves, and treats sticking around on this planet as an accomplishment all on its own.
Not only is it our most existential holiday, it’s like we crammed it in the middle of real holidays out of some misbegotten desire to give the existentialists their own reason to party. Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, celebrates gratitude and all of the comforts of the Hobbit hole. Christmas celebrates a birthday, but—not to get overly theological—a pretty darn special birthday. Easter celebrates a re-birthday of sorts.
I don’t really hate existentialism, because there are important insights to be found in contemplating the possibility that the universe doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. William F. Buckley used to say, “The problem with socialism is socialism. The problem with capitalism is capitalists.” That’s how I feel about existentialism. I don’t mind the philosophy, my disagreements notwithstanding, I just don’t like the existentialists very much. That’s because the most forceful proponents of existentialism in everyday life fall into a category best summarized as “dicks.”
Their dickishness derives from their tendency, like all those proverbial vegans and atheists, to constantly point out that other people’s sources of meaning are in fact meaningless. They take their own rejection of custom, reverence, tradition, and loyalty as an excuse to call you an idiot. Like Will Hunting explaining that meeting for coffee is just as arbitrary as meeting for caramel-eating, they use their arrogant alienation as a way to belittle other people’s commitments. They put the obnoxious LOL in “LOL, nothing matters.”
What the existentialists miss is that meaning comes from the things we do together, the commitments we inherit from the past, the causes we care about for the future, and the ideals that come from outside ourselves. I firmly believe the right to pursue happiness is an individual right, but the sources of happiness are mostly found in devotion to others.
In other words, the problem of existentialism is the hyper-individualistic self-absorption. Whether it’s Nietzsche or Camus or the Joker, the emphasis is always on personal authenticity and individual will. It wasn’t enough for Nietzsche to reject God, he had to hector everyone else about it, too. “Life has no meaning a priori,” according to Jean-Paul Sartre. “It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.” Camus says “the literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.” But Woody Allen said it best: “I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.”
Which brings me to the celebration-on-the-cheap of it all. I’m no fan of Valentine’s Day, another day of forced enthusiasm and date-panic. But at least it puts the emphasis on precious human interactions—and wildly expensive prix-fixe menus. New Year’s keeps all the worst elements of Valentine’s Day while stripping it of sentiment, affection, and commitment.
It’s a little like my gripe about generational obsessions with demographic cohorts and youth politics. Young people who take undue pride in being born later than the rest of us are shouting to the world they’ve got nothing else going for them to be proud of. I mean, they literally had no say in when they were born. The existentialist underpinnings of New Year’s turn survival into the equivalent of successfully scratching 365 hashmarks on the walls of the prison cell that is existence. Don’t get me wrong, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn literally did that in the gulag, he had every reason to celebrate with an extra crust of moldy bread, provided by a regime that carried the precepts of existentialism to one of its most notorious conclusions. After all, Soviet communism would have been impossible without a rejection of all those capitalized concepts that militate against the unrestrained imposition of will.
Finally, there’s the crowds. I fully confess that this is informed by personal grievance—as opposed to the utterly reasonable and dispassionate analysis above. As longtime readers may recall, I dislike crowds, especially passionate crowds. One could even say I suffer from enochlophobia. I won’t rehash the dangers of false transcendence that come with crowds. I’ll just say that I find the very natural human tendency to find meaning and exhilaration by being part of a really big group off-puttingly atavistic. It’s probably my most remnant-y sentiment.
I’m a New Yorker by birth and affinity. As such, I take a certain amount of pride in my hatred of the New Year’s “party” in Times Square, where thousands of people cram the streets like so many wayward Hebrews awaiting the unveiling of the Golden Calf, or in this case, a sparkly ball that descends maybe 20 or 30 feet at midnight. (At least the mobs in Pamplona risk getting gored by an actual not-so-golden bovine.) The lameness of the ball drop “spectacle” alone elicits a certain unjustified rage in me. In fairness, there are self-described New Yorkers who attend this most pedestrian of bacchanals: We Manhattanites call them “New Jerseyans,” though I’m sure some of them come—via fittingly subterranean bridges and tunnels—from the wilder territories of the outer-boroughs.
I attended just one such “celebration.” Of course, there was a girl involved. She was from Westchester, of course. A lovely and brilliant woman—my first serious girlfriend—she nonetheless thought it would be “fun” if I joined her and her suburban friends in Time Square. And I caved to the pressure. She was wrong. It was colder than the meaningless universe the existentialists fetishize. I was bumped by people demonically possessed by the St. Vitus’ Dance of manufactured excitement. I waited on lines (New Yorkers say “on line” not “in line”) to be overcharged for beers at bars exceeding the occupancy dictated by the fire marshal, and I waited on lines to return the beers after internal processing. I held handbags for girls—the international symbol for men broken of all masculine pride, a sort of code for a failed balls-drop as it were—as they waited on even longer bathroom lines. We had arguments about whether we should go somewhere else. We jumped in place and stamped our feet to chase off the cold in our extremities, made all the more difficult by the spilled beer on our shoes.
And then the ball dropped.
While the people around me cheered because that was the fashionable thing to do, it took no effort for me to contain my excitement. But all that did for me is elicit an arrogant rage at the meaningless of the entire exercise. That’s it? Is that all there is? Why did we bother?
Perhaps this is my real reason for hating New Year’s. It summoned within me the very demon of existentialist dread the crowd was celebrating evading for one more year, like so many Pamplona survivors. My girlfriend went back to Westchester that night, and while I no longer held her purse, I still felt like I was holding the bag, bitterly chuckling the equivalent of LOL, nothing matters.
Ever since, my idea of the perfect New Year’s eve is a nice meal at home, with my lovely wife, our dependable enochlophobic beasts, in our own Hobbit hole, enjoying the fact we’re nowhere near the maddening crowds, and without the slightest concern that, having gone to bed at a reasonable hour, in the morning we’ll be lamenting we missed anything important at all. Happiness doesn’t just start at home, it lives there.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: While 2023 wasn’t Zoë’s favorite year given the loss of most of her teeth, she’s clearly much happier now than she was prior to the extraction. Indeed, she’s mellowed in almost every way. She’s been tolerating Pippa’s spanielness with more equanimity and even let Pippa get a wayward piece of floor meat intended for Zoë. I say “almost” because there’s no sign of thawing in her Cold War with Gracie. Every evening is a contest of territorial incursions, with each of them trying to seize the spot next to me, making me a kind of armchair Metternich desperately trying to adjudicate their endless irredentist ambitions. Gracie really is quite brilliant at trolling Zoë, taunting her into abandoning her belly-rub redoubt by approaching Zoë’s food bowl, even though Gracie—obligate carnivore that she is—has never evinced the slighted desire to eat canine kibble. Once lured out of “her” spot, Zoë returns from her food station only to see that the feline has doubled back to my chair. Zoë then jumps up on the ottoman and towers over Gracie glaring at her in the hope that the damned cat will vacate the spot. The only punctuation in this run-on sentence of tit-for-tat is when Pippa seizes the opportunity to take the spot for herself. I would film this cycle more, but I am often put in the position of having to use both hands to placate two or more animals. Other than that, the girls have been very happy to have the full pack at home (not counting bath time). Lucy can get exasperated with the dogs, but they appreciate that she will often distract Gracie with endless affection. Pippa has been doing valuable work, chasing balls and holding up walls. And I have largely surrendered to her morning bouts of extortion.
And now, the weird stuff