Welcome to Slack Tide
Konnichiwa. Or as my English-speaking readers prefer, “hello.” I’m Matt Labash, and welcome to Slack Tide, my brand spanking-new Substack. Just saying those words makes me feel like a honking cliché. Not the Matt Labash part. There aren’t many of us. The only other one who shows up in my Google alerts is a star college lacrosse player. I keep meaning to ask if he’d like to trade lives.
But the starting my own Substack bit is akin to saying “welcome to my kimchi-taco truck” three years ago, or to my froufrou cupcakery a decade prior. It’s been done a bit. And so, I can almost hear the naysayers naysaying: “Great, just what the world needs. Another journalism industry refugee seeking his fortune – or subsistence living – trying to charge us for his blog or ‘newsletter’ or whatever they’re calling these things. Didn’t the techno-utopians tell us information wanted to be free?”
To the detractors, I’d say:
1. Button it, Mom. Am trying to work, here.
2. I’ve never liked the word “blog,” which sounds like something you cough up rather than write. And “newsletter” is even worse. It conjures images of my Aunt Georgia knocking out a Christmas form letter, updating us on the status of Uncle Phil’s plaque psoriasis. Who knows what to call this vehicle? Let’s go with “strategically arranged nouns and verbs” as a placeholder.
3. Don’t ever believe anything the techno-utopians tell you. Remember when they said the internet would serve as illuminative lamplight on the higher path to enlightenment? It was supposed to unify us, making us wiser, better informed, more empathetic. That worked out swell, didn’t it?
4. According to the Population Reference Bureau, 117 billion people have been born since the dawn of time. Roughly 7.7 billion of those people walk the earth right now (nearly six percent of the total). So it’s best not to get too wrapped around the axle of being an original. The odds are not in our favor.
With the doubters now silenced, let’s proceed. For those who don’t know me (can any of us really know each other?), I spent two-and-a-half decades as a magazine journalist, eschewing the dreary sausage-making of Washington life to write about everything from chicken-wire circuit Christian wrestlers to diabolical dirty tricksters, from crack-smoking mayors to tangelo-colored real estate developers. My beat was the human comedy, which often passes for the human tragedy. (The two are frequently indistinguishable.)
My generous, long-suffering editors allowed me to roam the land on their tab, unearthing what they used to call “characters” (shorthand for people with personality in a town that often had none), and to write them up at ungodly lengths. The kind of lengths most modern editors would no longer stand for unless it was a very important three-part series on how the endangered Sumatran orangutan is showing signs of gender fluidity. Not that I don’t have utmost sympathy for endangered species – I was a print journalist. Nor can I lodge convincing complaints against gender fluidity. I did, after all, watch all six seasons of Girls.
But it all came crashing down a couple years ago when soulless corporate weasels saw fit to pull the plug on our little enterprise, without even extending the courtesy of selling us to a prospective buyer. That’s fine. As my father-in-law always says, “You know the Golden Rule, don’t you? He who has the gold, rules.” Which he might’ve stolen from the Bible.
After the crash, a visionary editor offered me a princely sum to write a Rilke-esque Letter To A Young Journalist, life advice to those trying to get their start in our benighted business, if business isn’t too strong a word. He was presumably shooting for something more edifying than “go into finance while there’s still time.” I immediately said yes, since my fine furs and gold grillz don’t pay for themselves.
But I ultimately punted the assignment. For I got to thinking about how I committed journalism for many, many years: Spend weeks scouting for a fascinating subject. Arm-twist him/her into letting you invade their world. Hang out for a long time, absorbing and reporting and pouring strong drink down that subject’s gullet on the company dime (because Kentucky Sunshine = truth serum). Then spend another few weeks painstakingly transcribing endless hours of interview tape, and indexing those transcripts, and doing gobs of support reading around the subject. Then index that reading. (Sometimes, my indexes were so long, I had to index them.) Then lock yourself into an isolation chamber for days on end with your stacks and indexes and transcripts, and write up the story in all its technicolor glory, striving to leave no compelling details on the cutting-room floor.
After doing that math, I realized I wouldn’t be telling dewy, wide-eyed young’uns how to do a job that exists. I’d be telling them how to do a job that had long ago ceased to exist, even while I still had that job. It’s impossible for a newbie to practice such an approach when their taskmaster is sticking a gun to their temple to crank out three pieces of rage-bait per day, since readers need to stay good and angry with short attention spans for modern journalism to work. Or so the dysfunctional thinking goes.
Enter Substack. A little over two years ago, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie sat me down at a D.C. bar, and over oh-so-many-beers, politely asked me to consider becoming one of the first conservative writers on their burgeoning platform. I don’t remember precisely what I said. It’s bad form to take notes on your own utterances as fodder for future essays. But it was something along the lines of, “What’s a conservative? I don’t even know what that means anymore. And neither does 95 percent of the Republican party, best I can tell. How ‘bout another round?”
To showcase my chops as a journalism professional, I’d intended to drink Hamish under the table. But he’s from New Zealand, so that proved futile. We continued with the sudsy chit-chat for another hour or three, until his eyes became storm clouds, and he finally let the hard rain fall: “Matt, the media model you’ve always known is broken. The building is on fire, and the firefighters are on lunch break. All your heroes are dead, and the ones who aren’t, wish they were. The Substack train is here. The choice is yours. You can either get on the train, or wait until it leaves, then get a job cleaning the train station.”
Or maybe he didn’t say that. Memory is a trickster, and Hamish is a skilled words guy. I doubt he’d have mixed that many metaphors even with an elevated BAC. But he didn’t have to say it. I knew what he meant. And besides, all my heroes are dead: Tom Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell, Jim Harrison, Levon Helm, Esther Rolle, Sherman Hemsley, that guy who played Rerun on What’s Happening (I have an enduring affinity for black sitcom stars of the 1970s.) Keith Richards and Tom Waits are still alive. But they could go any day now. They even sang a song about it together.
To cut to the chase, I didn’t jump on that Substack train, nor did I get a job cleaning the train station after some disqualifying issues arose in my background check. Instead, I spent the last couple years ignoring reality and doing things I like: fly fishing, kayaking, splitting wood, cooking, hiking with my dog, marinating in good books, while intermittently writing for everyone from the New York Times to fishing magazines. Even as one of the things I love most – my country – seemed to be growing darker and angrier, more resentful and paranoid, falling into deeper disrepair, suffering the kind of soul-killing damage that no infrastructure bill can touch. So I did what any good American would do under such dire circumstances: watched a lot of Netflix.
But a man can only stream so many seasons of Schitt’s Creek before he is up one. Especially with his sons’ two college tuitions sinking him like the Andrea Doria. So now seems as good a time as ever to come out of my hibernation den, with Substack the best place to do it. For decades, I have corresponded with a wide array of friends, acquaintances, and mortal frenemies by email. One suggested I should publish my emails as “that’s where you do your real work,” due to my often writing essay-length personal missives. This happens even and especially while on deadline, since, like most writers, I will do anything to avoid writing. Even more writing.
But Substack’s format is perhaps truest to my own favorite format of sending emails to friends. It’s a vehicle that allows you to be more freewheeling, more free-associating, and that just provides more freedom, generally. Freedom, to my ears, being one of the most beautiful words in the English language, right up there with “dogs” and “fish” and “nap.” This is my first time operating as a one-man band, without being part of a publication, which can be unnerving. The upside being that having no colleagues should significantly cut down on editorial disagreements.
So what will this thing of ours look like? Well, not to go too Zen monk/Matthew McConaughey on you, but it is what it is, and will become what it needs to be. There will be a little politics, of course. Though after our last half-decade of binge-drinking political toxins, you probably can’t have little enough. So we will also tackle whatever comes (and by “we,” I mean me and my new editor, Grammarly): life and death and family and music and books and fishing and God. In other words, any and all things, not necessarily in that order. Since all these things are of a piece in my universe. There are no clean lines of demarcation.
If you come here to take in my slant on the world, wherever that leads, you’re in the right place. If you come here to watch me own the libs, you’ll probably be disappointed. I’ll rent them on occasion, as the spirit moves. Yet I’m a firm believer that if you only find the other guy’s side to be full of con artists, chiselers, and demagogues, you’re not paying close enough attention to your own. Pledging blind loyalty to either side is a bit like cheering on which cancer you’d rather die of: pancreatic or colorectal. One’s a knife in the gut and one’s a pain in the tuchus, but either, left untreated, will make short work of you. Besides, after the last five years of my purported “side” selling out most of the things I hold dear – like honesty, for starters - I’m not in the mood to carry anyone’s water or to wear any labels. The only label I care to wear is “teller of truths.” That, and J. Crew, since I’m a middle-aged white man living in America, and am therefore obligated by law to wear Egyptian cotton pique polo shirts and unflattering stretch chinos.
Why are we calling this Slack Tide? Well, you have to call it something. And my other prospective names, quite honestly, blew. Please Subscribe seemed a tad subtle. Matt’s Worldloaf Emporium and Lukewarm Takes were self-cancellers. I thought about sponging unsuspecting readers by going with Christian Pornhub or Common Sense With Bari Weiss, but no healthy relationship is built on deception.
And so, Slack Tide it is. I’m a Marylander who lives near the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in America. If you don’t spend incalculable hours around water with a fly rod, as I do, you might not know that fish tend to feed on a flood or ebb tide, when the water is moving and the protein conveyor belt shuffles along their prey. But when the bay or its tribs stop moving, between tides, the water is said to go slack. This is when the aquatic world somewhat stills itself. The fish homicide rate drops. Baitfish can rest, at least with one eye open.
This Slack Tide might not keep you from eating or being eaten. But here, I’m hoping to throw at least as much light as heat. After these last many years, we’re all stocked up on heat. We’re overheated, truth be told. I often seesaw between cockeyed optimist and doomsday pessimist. (Why choose if you don’t have to?) But too often, we become the fulfillment of our own doomsday prophecies. Sure, it feels like things suck at the moment. But might that be because we’ve internalized suckage? First, begrudgingly tolerating it, then excusing it, then sometimes even championing it. This is not just our politicians’ fault. The fault is ours, as well. They are of us, we elect them. They aren’t just our flawed leaders. They’re our mirror.
I do write with sharp elbows, plenty. And I freely admit that it can be good, clean fun to take a sonofabitch out back and give him the drubbing he’s been asking for. I have done so before, and will do so again. But the more sand that runs through my hourglass, the more I learn that we all ask for that beating sooner or later. And that’s why God invented grace. So that we don’t always get what we’ve been asking for. We should not only receive grace, but extend it, on occasion. And in our present rageisphere, we’ve collectively forgotten how to do so. Yet we need more of it. Me, and you, and even those soulless corporate weasels who snuffed my magazine. (Note to weasels: Just took my own hard advice and forced myself to say a prayer for you, fellas. And for a change, not that you’d get hit by a truck.)
So here’s how this will work. I’ll be keeping regular hours here, about twice a week for the foreseeable future. It’s where I’ll be doing the bulk of my writing. Subscribe at any tier, and it will come directly to your inbox whenever there’s a new offering. While some of Slack Tide will remain free, part of it will be paywalled. If you’re not on the right side of that wall, you’ll miss much of the inner-sanctum goodness – the wisdom, epiphanies, dazzling wordplay, cancer cures, oiled-up Nuru massages (by Webex only, for liability reasons), whatever falls behind the velvet rope.
You can starve yourself by trying to make a meal of the sampler tray. Or you can tell the corporate-media Man to stick it (my transparent attempt at arousing populist ire), by being a good pal/supporter, and by subscribing for five dollars per month, or 50 bucks a year (ten dollars off the annual monthly rate for the non-math inclined). If you wish to be an X-treme Slack Tide supporter, there’s a $250 co-founding membership option, also good for a year’s subscription. Or you can write in your own co-founder amount, if your reservoir of affection for me runs deeper than 50 bucks-worth, but you don’t want to get too carried away or anything. All pure good-faith gestures, on your end, for which I’ll express gratitude by saying a fervent intercessory prayer on your behalf, asking that your livestock be multiplied, your spouse made more attractive, and your enemies destroyed. Most proceeds will go to my least favorite charities – my kids’ university accounting offices.
Reader support is the only way this stays a going concern. But whatever subscription tier you choose, even the free-rider option, I encourage you to come on this journey with me. And if you do, I solemnly swear to never use a cringe-inducing word like “journey” again. Not unless I’m actually tracking snow leopards across the Tibetan Plateau, or discussing the musical stylings of Neal Schon and Steve Perry.