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The Sybarite Newsletter: Issue Five

Beef stew, a rebellion, and some memories

The Beach at Trouville, Henri Gervex, France 1852–59 | | Public Domain

My cousin Sam died on Thursday night. I can’t quite describe my feelings about it. I do know that I hate it when people react to death by performatively rending their garments and having public emotional breakdowns, when in fact they’re still just sort of stunned. But we now live in a world that rewards trauma, big or small, so it’s hard to blame them. They know not what they do.

Our family knew it was coming, because Sam had glioblastoma, a type of cancer that does not fuck around. I don’t think I’m equipped to rank various ways to die, or various cancers, but there’s something to be said for a disease that shows up and says in no uncertain terms, You are dying now. This is happening. Pack your bags.

Sam was diagnosed eight months ago, and over the last three months he lost a lot of autonomy — almost all of it — and yet his son told me that he remained kind and polite to everyone until the very end, always thanking everyone who helped him no matter how small the task. I know he was afraid to die, which makes his politeness all the more impressive.

“How did he do that?” I asked his son. “I screamed at someone today because they got my babaganoush order wrong.” I wish it weren’t true that I screamed at someone about a babaganoush order, but it is. “I don’t know how he did it,” his son responded “none of us do.”

After that I decided that I should take a moment and actually think about Sam, about what I would miss about him and what I learned from him. But all I could think about was the beef bourguignon he used to make for me when I visited during breaks from law school. I tried to think about something else, something more important than beef stew, like his kindness, but I kept coming back to beef stew. I also remembered that he took my dad hiking in the Sierras one spring, and my dad came back with a new beard but no toenails because his boots didn’t fit right. Dad was thrilled.

This got me thinking about memories, and how they only exist because of things that we can see, feel, hear. We need to stay anchored to the real, because that’s all we’ll remember when life marches on. This, I think, is one of the reasons I started Sybarite — a place where we can celebrate the real, and recognize that real things often transcend themselves. Yes, all I can think about is Sam’s beef stew, but I know Sam loved me because he made me beef stew. And he also loved to make beef stew. Win/win for both me and Sam. Beef stew was therefore — how do the kids say it these days? — a “life hack” for both of us.

Which brings me to something that makes me mad. I’ve danced around this before, but I’ll come out and say it: I hate, truly, the content for content’s sake around here. Not only is it dreck, it’s sinister dreck because the creators (not writers, creators) know they are not delivering true, real-world information, instead pumping out empty promise after empty promise, knowing full well that people will keep clicking and clicking and clicking because people are beautifully simple and they just want to be happy. (Which is why they should just make a beef stew instead).

You can easily tell who these creators are. They loudly complain about algorithm changes — because they unabashedly write for the algorithm and the algorithm alone. I recently read a piece by a guy with a large follower count who was lamenting that large follower counts no longer matter, because his views have dropped significantly over the last few months. I kept reading, waiting for him to acknowledge that people were tired of meaningless content, but that never seemed to occur to him.

This type of complaint has always annoyed me, but suddenly I was disgusted. The writer wasn’t even trying to hide that he’s only here for views or reads or claps or whatever the currency is supposed to be. I hit the “show less like this button” as my own little rebellion — I know enough about algorithms to know that doing so might make my feed better, but wouldn’t do a lot to change the culture of …whatever that is.

But then it occured to me: if we all hit the “show less like this” button on that dreck, maybe, just maybe we can stop this shit? I don’t pretend to know, but I think it’s worth a shot, so let’s start a movement. Let’s hit the “ show less like this button” every time you see someone promising to teach you how to get rich, get rich on Medium, lose weight, find love, or my favorite, telling you that the world is definitely going to end. It is not. It will end for some people, like Sam, and keep spinning for others, and ultimately it’s going to be okay. (But only if you hit the “less like this button.”)

When we help shove the sinister, empty content-for-content’s sake stuff to the bottom, we can then elevate work like this incredible piece by Matthew Specktor, about memories of San Francisco, but also about so much more. Read it. You will be stunned. I’m frankly stunned that Sybarite managed to pull this off, because the truth is that Sybarite is not yet good enough for Matthew Specktor. But then again it will never be good enough unless people like Matthew Specktor take mercy on Sybarite and provide us something as beautiful as this piece. It’s one of those logic problems that hurts, but hurts good.

There are other things going on at at Sybarite — like the new cooking series called “How Hot + How Long” but I’m going to save that until next week. As I learned from Matthew’s piece, and the way my mind keeps trying to latch on to something about Sam, sometimes it’s enough to stop talking about something and just let it be.

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Sybarite is devoted to stories of pleasure and luxury, and is allergic to all forms of self help.

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