Start of Year Check-In

It was crazy busy in the weeks that straddled the New Year. I was sitting a unit for somebody, and hurriedly trying to finish Letter #9 before the country shut down (printers and post offices), when the unit owner announced her surprise return on New Year’s Eve, and I had to pack everything into suitcases, willy-nilly, clean the unit from top to bottom, organise transport, and move back onto the boat. I still can’t find half my tools and things. Disrupted.

There hasn’t been time, till now, to sit back, roll a metaphorical cigarette of contemplation (wishing it were the real thing…), and watch the good and bad of the old year dissolve like chocolate-scented smoke.

Relax, this photo’s old. The habit is one of the things I left behind in 2018.
Still miss it though. Every morning.
It haunts…like the phantom limb of amputated youth. When did I get so tame? So inoffensively middle-aged? So mindful of my health? Where did my claws and fangs go? When did I lose my invincibility, and become afraid to die?

Along with my chocolate-and-cognac infused tobacco habit, I quit my job in October. To see if I could manage on art and love alone. So begins my acquaintance with the demons of anxiety that countless other ‘do-what-you-love’ freelancers have spoken about.

I have met, as well, the real difficulties of having no money, of not being able to get hold of money when needed, and of not knowing when, if ever, money would come.

I mustn’t exaggerate, though. It’s not the paralyzing situation that it could have been. There are no debt-collectors standing over us, nobody threatening to take our home away. Kris earns a little from selling his books and doing a bit of carpentry here and there, I earn a little from my Patreon letter subscribers, and we don’t need much. I am ‘saving’ $320 a month simply by not smoking! We own our ‘house’ (such as it is) and don’t pay real estate rates or power bills. We don’t have a car. The houseboat runs on solar panels. We row, and don’t buy/burn fuel for any kind of engine. Got no kids, nor even pets at this stage. No serious illnesses. No active addictions. No debts or credit cards, no loans, no mortgage. And we never touch our travel savings, either, so this whittled-down lifestyle still feels like a choice and not a trap! The simplicity still feels like a distillation, not poverty. We’re still going traveling this year.

But I found myself drawn, nonetheless, to the glowing aura of success on Instagram, and thought it could not hurt to brush up on “How to Become a Big Budju Malaka on Social Media” and promote my Patreon monthly letter subscription to a wider audience.

My IG following sits at 200+ people, mostly personally known to me. There’s a 4-year-old on Instagram with 200,000 followers, and she’s just a cute kid (not out-of-this-world…but cute, as kids are) with an aptitude for posing, and a precociously narcissistic little ego that everyone adores. She doesn’t seem particularly talented…they hang clothes on her. I thought the secret must lie in a system of regular posting, some hashtagging skills, a tight photo aesthetic, and some sort of reciprocal etiquette. How hard could it be?

My “Occupy Instagram” project coincided with sitting my friend’s unit. I had lots of time alone…Kris refused to leave his boat for The ‘Burbs. Chlorinated spas and air-conditioned bedrooms fail to excite him, other people’s homes are “all wrong”, and their bookshelves are contemptible. I, on the other hand, am allergic to sandflies—I suffer terribly from both the bites, and an eczema in reaction to all the bites, during the summer—so this hiatus beckoned like skin & sanity rehab.

I watched hours of video each night. Enrolled in Skillshare, subscribed to social media coaches on YouTube, followed recommended successful “influencers” in order to see how they did things. When I felt ready, I downloaded the half-dozen apps recommended by all the different experts, installed them on my phone, and looked at what they could do for me.

The hashtagging app generates 25 lines of hashtags prompted by one key word…but of course the algorithms are based on what has already been tagged, ad nauseam. Usually, when I typed in one of my words, I got “Sorry, can’t find anything that matches your search…”

The next app sends stock comments to everyone who has interacted with your feed. It’s quite likely that the blander, less specific comments you receive from others are sent by the same app. You can set up bots to do the work of distributing pre-made messages, badgering others for likes, and indiscriminately liking everyone else.

Statistics apps show you lists of everyone you’ve followed that day, who followed you back, and a button to “unfollow’ the list of people who didn’t reciprocate. Lists of all your new admirers, lists of people who used to, but then stopped following you (presumably the app will also send a missile to their GPS locations and blow them to kingdom come.)

The pretense and automation of nearly every aspect of becoming “a social media boss” exhausted me. By the third night, I was allergic to Instagram, Facebook, even Twitter. If I was oblivious, before, to the likes and the numbers, I felt hostile to them, now, because most of it was just apps talking to apps. It felt self-abasing to care about any of the statistics, or to do anything in an attempt to influence those numbers, at all. To sink to the level of an app.

Around this time, Brandon Stanton (the extraordinary human behind ) published “A Space To Create” on his Patreon site, where he wrote about social media, and how it is failing artists and people who want what they do to still hold meaning, integrity, authenticity, substance, to be a real contribution to the world.

“…Content has become more bite-sized, more consumable, and less nuanced. In a world of decreasing attention spans, brevity is seen as the only way to compete. Importance is placed on the quantity of output rather than quality. Many ‘social media gurus’ teach that success is frequency of contact. Publish or perish. Either you constantly remind the world that you exist, or you will be forgotten.
I’ve spoken with a lot of artists on the Internet who feel burned out by this dynamic. They feel stifled by the treadmill of daily content…Social media tells you to go quickly. Art tells you to go deep. Social media tells you to replicate what works. Art tells you to experiment. Social media tells you to always be visible. Art tells you to disappear, figure something out, and come back with a discovery worth sharing. It’s not an easy puzzle for artists to solve. Because social media is the lifeline to our audience, and artists can’t survive without an audience.”

Brandon Stanton, “The Space To Create” on

For a few weeks I was tempted to do something drastic, like delete all my social media accounts. I’ve calmed down, since. I uninstalled Twitter, buried Instagram and Facebook inside a folder on my phone, turned off all notifications from these apps, so I have to open them to see updates.

It’s a good start. I’d like to delete the facebook account, eventually (mainly because of security breaches, leaks, and their misuse of personal information.) Meanwhile, I’m cool with using Instagram like a photo album…the way I do use Flickr (but hardly any of my friends are on Flickr).

“Is your purpose to create art? Or is your purpose to create an audience?”


I’m just not looking to social media to promote anything that I care about, anymore. And I am dropping all efforts to improve my popularity or “build an audience” through these channels!

“Instead of wasting all day grooming superficial stuff on social media, pour your energy into mastering a difficult skill…The solution, rather than trying to endlessly spruce up your website and social media posts, is to put in the hard work. Get up early, or stay up late honing your skills.”

John P. Weiss,

I’ll be withdrawing time and energy from all the Social Media (S&M) stuff, and pouring it back into writing (and, by extension, this blog), into producing exclusive posts for my Patreon subscribers, into the monthly letters, and into having an exhibition this year. I’m going to immerse myself in whatever I feel is worth my time, and be less visible to the people on social media, most of whom don’t get, or like, what I do, anyway.

To end on a cheesy note that’ll have you hating me for hearing this song in your head for the rest of the day:

“Back to life, back to reality, back to the Here and Now, yeah…”

“Back To Life” by Soul II Soul

Can’t believe I’m doing this again, so soon…

Letter No. 8
Letter No. 8

A letter about the sudden compulsion to buy a bus ticket to New York—”What a lark! What a plunge!”— when I (probably) should have been visiting all my relatives in Virginia, listening to the clan gossip, and diplomatically dodging any pointed questions about my family…

This letter’s print run was the same as last month’s. That’s okay, since I can’t add anyone on at this point, I had just enough printed to send to current patrons. As I warm to the idea of doing this full time, and to using Patreon as my homebase, my ideas for future letters are getting bolder, more heavily illustrated, and more experimental in format.

I can’t do back issues, because of Patreon’s system. Print quantities are for current patrons, you must be signed up before the 30th of the month, and the mail goes out on the 5th of the following month. It waits for nobody, comes back for nobody, repeats for nobody…this is not a drill, it’s a rocket to Mars, baby!

If you missed this one and don’t want to miss the next issue, please consider subscribing!

For the price of a coffee break, you get a beautiful letter in the mail, illustrated and (I hope! I try!) well-written, with calligraphy and postage stamps and wax seals and little gifts included, each month. And you don’t have to write back. Sign up for as long as you like, unsubscribe at any time.

You can even ask me to send the letters to someone that you should probably be writing to, but just can’t seem to get around to doing it. It’s not the same as a personal letter that you wrote, but it can still be very exciting to receive a beautifully addressed envelope, knowing that each month’s letter is a present from you.

All right, that’s enough, I know you know the routine. This little piggy has hustled enough for tonight!

vintage register journals

I was given, several years apart and by different people, these two “true vintage” register books. Both date to the 50’s, have been bound by hand, with  laid ivory pages ruled into columns and rows with red and grey ink. They’re massive…the bigger one measures 380mm x 500mm when open (15″ x 20″)! On both, the covers have suffered  water damage, leather deterioration, and just a general rotting away, I guess, due to how they were stored and who-knows-what they were exposed to.

I started using one of the books as a journal, a year ago.

At some point in its life, one of its owners started using it to catalog a reel-to-reel music collection…a whole bunch of songs were listed on half-a-dozen pages, including the counter numbers that marked where each track started and ended.
suitcase with wheels
Someone else—a sailboat owner—started an “address book” in its Index, gluing photos of some 40 yachts and writing down owners’ names and addresses, alongside.
They are the first hand-bound books not made by myself (or by one of my bookbinding students), that I have ever owned.

Mostly I doodle or stick things in. I don’t write in it as often as I’d like/I should. I wonder if it’s the unwieldy size that’s subtly discouraging me?

Ingest after reading…

Terry Gross: Can you share some of your favorite comments from readers that you’ve gotten over the years?

Maurice Sendak: Oh, there’s so many. Can I give you just one that I really like? It was from a little boy. He sent me a charming card with a little drawing. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters—sometimes very hastily—but this one I lingered over. I sent him a postcard and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim, I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much that he ate it.”

“Jim loved your card so much that he ate it.”

That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.


Cemetery Story

Outgoing mail, in the company of my journal pages from Haiti, the Baron Samedi (His Purple Majesty), a goat’s skull I found on a city sidewalk in Darwin (waaaay more bizarre than if I’d found it in South America somewhere…) and our homemade Elegguá (in some ways, the star of my letter).

The letter “Cemetery Story” will no longer be available by end of day (ACST, UTC +9:30) on October 30, so if you enjoy slightly morbid stories about visits to cemeteries, or are famiiar with the Lucumí, Mayombe, or vodoun religions that traveled with the diaspora from Africa to the Americas via the African Trans-Atlantic slave trade, then today is your last chance to sign up to Patreon and receive this issue of The Scarlet Letterbox.

{Become my patron for $9 a month…}

The letter is a little longer than usual, but I’m reluctant to amputate any more of it than I already have, so this letter will have an extra page of writing, so I can finish telling the story! The envelope has been printed by hand, using a homemade rubber stamp, in black and gold inks.  I’ve also slipped a postcard of my interpretation of Baron Samedi’s vevé, a design particular to Haitian vodoun, into the envelope.

On the Patreon site, patrons will have access to my favourite poem on the subject of death…(it’s not what you think—it’s a humorous, wonderful poem that totally celebrates the fact that life and death are yin and yang, each wrapped in the other’s embrace, both natural and desirable) as well as photos of some of the people, places, and things that I mention in my letter.

By the pricking of my thumbs,
something wicked this way comes.

I’m still waiting for my new phone (La la la…’nuff said…so boring) and so text and photos taken with my old DSLR are all I can offer on the Patreon site, for now. It’s coming, though…it’s coming…it’s very close…I can feel its presence…it may even be in Australia by now…


¿Why can’t I do ‘back issues’, anymore?

The thing with Patreon’s set-up is that I can’t charge individual patrons for individual letters. These days, when I publish a “paid post”, all of my patrons get charged at one time, for the same letter. It’s too confusing to charge everyone, but for different letters.

“Oh, that way madness lies…”

When November’s postal train pulls away from the station on the 1st, that’s it; you may sign up for Patreon any time in November, but you’ll be waiting for December’s letter car to pull up.

If you want a previous month’s letter, I can make that “back issue” available to you, over in my Etsy shop (provided I have copies left) but you can’t get it as part of your Patreon patronage, anymore, because the only time I’ll publish a “paid post” will be when the next letter is ready for mailing out. Besides, I’m now ordering the minimum quantity of printed copies, just to cover the current month’s number of subscribers…

Serendipity Ink

serendipity ink
An ink-soaked fountain pen made these random ink blots. Ecoline’s “Fir Green” bled from yellow green out to dark turquoise, as it soaked into a wad of tissue.
serendipity ink
Half of the trick is to recognise the happy accident, rather than toss the tightly-wadded tissue into a bin.
serendipity ink
Ecoline inks are very water-soluble and any kind of water-based glue or medium will make them bleed, so I used a quick mist of solvent-based spray adhesive on the journal page, instead. I lay the flattened tissue onto the adhesive, and rolled it down flat with a rubber brayer.

I just like having this bright splash of a page, in the enormous antique Register that I use as a journal these days.