The Bonfire Issue

SARM #13, in which I finally deliver on the whole "frisson" thing...

Hola, amigos.

If you missed The Frisson Issue, don’t worry—it wasn’t actually about frisson. But this one is.

The format is a little different this week. Lots of links up front, and then the rambling down below. I’d love to hear what you think.

If you’re going to skim, skip to Section 6—it’s the most important.

And don’t forget to share.


1 // What I’ve been consuming

Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso is a feel-good comedic masterpiece, and is a model for the nurturing modern man [~5 min read, kottke.org].

People are getting stuck in jail [~10 min read, substack.com] because judges are “authorizing” their release but leaving it up to a mysterious beurocracy called the “pretrial release unit”, which is in turn leaving it up to the judge, and so nothing happens.

Newt Gingrich straight up asked [twitter thread] why the Georgia Secretary of State was making it harder for Republicans to win by making it easier for people to vote, and Twitter freaked out. Which, I mean, yeah, you’re not supposed to say that part out loud, Newt.

The Orlando Sentinel issued a retraction [~10 min read, orlandosentinel.com] of their endorsement of U.S. Representative Michael Waltz because they “had no way of knowing at the time that Waltz was not committed to democracy.” Ouch.

Here’s a live dashboard being compiled from local news sources that shows how many vaccine doses are expected to be available in each state and some cities [tableau.com]. The internet can be such a cool thing.

And this clip [9:49 video, youtube.com] from a 1949 film about how to spot and think through propaganda is pretty great.


2 // So, about that whole Frisson thing.

Here’s what happened.

The other day, I was procrastinating via Reddit and ran across this video [30 seconds, reddit.com]. In it, some people are driving too fast on a mountain road, they lose traction, drive off the edge of the cliff, and roll all the way to the bottom. It’s not pleasant, and I honestly don’t recommend you click on it.

You clicked on it, didn’t you?

Okay, well now you’re in the situation I was in that day—you need some “eye bleach”, as the kids say. Meaning something very pleasant to erase the lingering mental taste of something very unpleasant.

So I started compulsively scrolling for something nice to watch. The first thing that caught my eye was this video, of something called throat singing [~3 min video, youtube.com].

Which was awesome! Completely something I didn’t know existed. How the hell are they making those sounds? The memory of that poor guy in that truck was already fading…

And then that led me to this one, of some guy singing the bass line AND THE MELODY of Amazing Grace at the same damn time [2:05 video, youtube.com]. It’s called overtone singing, and those guys in the first video were doing it, too, but this is just next level.

I mean, come on. Seriously. That was crazy.

That led me down a rabbit hole of other videos of musical type awesomeness, which led me to this one, of some kids in Africa doing what is kind of like barbershop harmony and absolutely nailing it [2:29 video, youtube.com].

Lots of people in the comments thread for this video were saying it gave them chills, and someone mentioned mentioned that if you like that feeling of getting chills, you should visit /r/frisson.

Frisson? What the heck is frisson?

And thus came to pass one of my favorite things in the whole world: a moment of genuine newness. Of learning that a thing is a thing, and not only that but there’s a whole bunch of people already looking into it.

Now in the case of frisson, we’re not talking about PhD candidates breaking new scientific ground. We’re talking about people on Reddit who like to watch videos and get all tingly. But still. Very cool.

So I dove in. But before I share some examples, let me share a personal story…


3 // I got a story for ya, Ags

In the fall of 1999, I was a sophomore at Texas A&M. Newly liberated in an off-campus apartment, but 100% sold on the traditions that had been drilled into me as a freshman in the dorms, I spent my weekends waking up at 5 a.m., riding out into the country in the bed of a pickup truck, and volunteering together with thousands of other students in the rain and the mud to cut down (with axes), strip (with axes), carry (on our shoulders), stack, and load onto trucks (by hand, 20-30 people pickup up a log, planting their feet, and throwing it up onto a semi-truck trailer!) the 50-foot trees that were then taken to campus and stacked into a 100-foot-tall bonfire, to be burned the evening before our annual rivalry game.

And then, at 2:42 a.m. on November 18, 1999, the stack fell [4:22 video, youtube.com], crushing and killing 12 of my classmates and injuring 27 others.

Tragedies—true tragedies—are often a double-edged sword. They are terrible, of course. But those that survive them almost always find, in time, that they’ve gained something to balance out the loss.

In fact I think that humans are purpose-built to come together during tragedies like this. It is one of our strongest instincts. When some unforeseen force or calamity shows up and knocks us down, we set aside our differences, lay down our animosities, forget our selfish struggles, and connect. We join together and we believe we can overcome, and so often we do.

In the days and weeks after bonfire fell in 1999, the student body—a collection of tens of thousands of students from myriad different backgrounds and representing every opinion and faction and ideology under the sun—coalesced into a single, living, breathing outpouring of love and support for one another. It was an amazing feeling, and you’d go back and forth between the two: grief, then togetherness, then grief, then togetherness.

The bonfire had been built and burned the night before the yearly football game between Texas A&M and the University of Texas every year since 1909. After it fell, as thousands of students held round-the-clock vigil, emergency workers spent days moving one log at a time until every survivor was saved and every dead Aggie was found and removed.

And then we played the football game.

In times of great tragedy or upheaval, it’s hard to know what should be put aside and what we should push through and do anyway. Like many of my fellow students, I didn’t go to class for a while. Finals were postponed or cancelled. Many stayed on campus to be with one another rather than going home to be with families who loved us but couldn’t possibly understand. In short: not much beyond healing seemed important.

But as the days wore on, as the football team showed up alongside the rest of us to search and carry logs, and then to light candles and sing and hold hands at the place where our friends had suffered and died, we decided, without having to talk about it much, that the game would go on.

Sports can be silly, but they’re also kind of amazing, because they wield the power of war. Not in the sense that they allow us to invade and take over neighboring territory (wouldn’t that be fun?), but because in peacetime, they are a substitute for the warriors every tribe of humans in history has depended on for protection.

We have a deep, instinctual need for and dependence on a warrior class in our society. There is nothing more existentially terrifying than the prospect of being invaded by a foreign tribe, and nothing more cathartic and exhilirating that watching your side win the ensuing battle and secure your safety.

Football is so popular because while we almost never wake up to midnight raids from the Mongols these days, our primitive brains are still as ready for that as ever, and watching your sports team is like watching your uncles and brothers go to battle on your behalf.

So after the bonfire fell, we were breaking down and sobbing at the drop of a hat, avoiding classes and other responsibilities, and generally wallowing in the sorrow. But there’s nothing that could have kept us out of the stadium to watch that football game. We had been hurt, and we wanted our army to avenge us.

Which was going to be tough, because the Longhorns were much better than us that year. Our coach said later that the players literaly willed the victory into being. They were channeling the pain of tens of thousands of us, distilling it into a white-hot, focused effort that was enough to overcome the talent on the other side of the ball. In other words, we pulled it off. And as silly as it sounds—as hollow and meaningless as college sports usually are—the victory that day was very meaningfull indeed. Many of us walked out of the stadium and realized that the fog had lifted just a bit—that we had seen a glimpse of life on the other side of tragedy, and taken the first big step on the journey to healing.

But before we knew the outcome, at halftime, the Longhorn band took the field. We collectively rolled our eyes.

There was an announcement that they were dedicating their performance to the students who had been hurt and inujured in the collapse. Well, that was a bit of a nice surprise. There was a smattering of applause. They marched and made silly shapes, as college bands do, and we milled around waiting for it to be over so we could get back to the game.

And then they formed up and started playing Amazing Grace.

And not only did they have a couple of University of Texas flags in the middle of the field, but they also had a couple of Texas A&M flags. They raised them all together, and played the song that means healing, and we all looked at each other and started tearing up. Sniffles. Hands reached out to grasp hands.

And then they lowered their flags, and kept our raised.

A simple gesture of compassion and respect, and something I’m sure the Longhorn band hoped would make an impact.

It was like a cannon shot directly to the heart. It stirred such emotion that it was difficult to process. We got chills. We broke down. We smiled uncontrollably. We cheered. We laughed. We felt…

…frisson.

Just typing this has gotten me choked up, and watching this potato-quality footage [2:32 video, youtube.com] has never failed to bring tears back to my eyes.

Watch it, and let me know if I’ve told the story well enough for you to feel it, too.


4 // So that’s frisson. Want some more?

In November of 1999, I and 80,000 of my closest friends all felt a moment of sychronized frisson (pronounced free-sawn), born in a shared sense of loss and despair.

But this feeling not predicated on loss. You don’t need a tragedy to get the chills or well up with happy tears. In fact, all you need is to be human.

fris·​son | \ frē-ˈsōⁿ\ | noun
a brief moment of emotional excitement : shudder, thrill
a frisson of surprise, a frisson of delight

Which is great, because that means we can go in search of it, with the help of /r/frisson, or our Facebook timelines, and sometimes come up with something good.

Now of course we all have different experiences, so different things press our emotional buttons. I’m going to throw a bunch of different things at the wall and see what sticks.

Let me know what hits you.

1. A dog being reunited with its human

2. This note from an elderly COVID patient on his admittance form

3. These New Zealand school boys doing a Haka to send off a favorite teacher, who was retiring

4. Stephen Fry, a famous athiest, answering an interviewer who asks what he will say to God if he ends up being real

This one’s definitely not for everyone. But there’s something about his passion for right and wrong, no matter what you believe.

5. This taxi driver heading to the Las Vegas shooting without a moment’s hesitation

6. Arnold Schwarzenegger replying to an internet troll about the Special Olympics

7. George H.W. Bush’s handwritten note to Bill Clinton


5 // A very special example to close it out

Here are four letters written this year to Santa from kids across the country.

Take a minute to read them, and feel your heart break just a little bit.

Okay, so, sorry about that. I know that’s the kind of thing that can wreck your day.

BUT, this is a bit of an exception, because these letters are from the US Post Office’s Operation Santa [uspsoperationsanta.com]. Which means these kids might actually get what they’re asking for.

The USPS has volunteers open letters addressed to Santa, and they put them up on that website. Anyone who wants to can “adopt” a letter and help that kid or that family in some way.

It could be as simple as buying and sending a gift, or it could be something much more impactful.

Take a look — https://www.uspsoperationsanta.com/letters — and see if something grabs your attention.

Of course, there are plenty of run-of-the-mill “I want a PS5” letters, but there are also some kids who really seem like they could use a hand in life like the above. Try the “families” tab if you’re not seeing anything good.

And let me know if you decide to adopt one.


6 // Okay, that’s it.

Have a great week.

And if you’ve been around some crowds (perhaps to a mall, or a holiday party), do me a favor and go get tested just in case. Who knows? You could save someone’s life.

Donnie