I Am David Brooks’s Prodigal Son
February 18th, 2014
[NB: I am not David Brooks's son, prodigal or otherwise. I am really 56 years old, and my father is not a NY Times columnist. If Brooks has a son named Sam or a grandson named Doug, then that is a coincidence for which I apologize in advance, although, if he does, I will agree in advance that I could have used Aloysius or Boniface and avoided the coincidence entirely, but Sammy and Dougie have such a nice ring. But I will change it if this regrettable possibility turns out to be the case.]
My dad really surprised me this time. I figured I’d come home to a real shit show, you know, a long I-told-you-so about the necessity of self-restraint, and then an even longer period of icy silence while he made me read The Wealth of Nations. Because really, a dad who does the marshmallow experiment—the one where you put a marshmallow in front of a kid, and tell him he can have that one now or, if he can wait until you return, he can have three later—on his own three-year-old, and uses not just marshmallows but those irresistible pink Hostess Sno Balls, and then, after the kid snarfs the Sno Ball the second his dad walks out of the room, waves a sheaf of papers in his face, reciting statistics about SAT scores and income and body mass index, how the kid who can’t resist the Sno Ball is doomed to be a fat unemployed slob, always a taker, never a maker—I mean, that’s not the kind of dad whom you expect to greet you with open arms after you’ve done what I’ve done.
Just as the experiment predicted (and he repeated it at six-month intervals until I was eight, and the outcome was always the same, even though the Sno Balls got less and less satisfying, while watching Dad get all apoplectic never did), I flunked out of college. Well, not flunked out exactly. After I booted my first sophomore semester—no surprise, I’d barely made it through prep school and freshman year, wouldn’t have without all that tutoring and Adderall, plus a couple of well-timed calls from Dad—the college would have had me back (we were paying retail after all), but Dad gave me a choice, or as he put it, an “opportunity to make good choices.” He told me he was giving up on trying to influence me, that it was high time I made my own mistakes and lived with the consequences, so he was just going to give me what was left of the money he’d put away for my college to use as I saw fit. But that was it, he said. When it was gone, it was gone, and I’d be on my own.
The account had about $150K in it. I wasn’t sure what I would do with it, but I knew I wasn’t going to use it for college. I wasn’t going to be like my older brother Sam, sitting there all smug and self-righteous doing math problems while his Sno Ball attracted flies, and then, when he got his promised three, making sure to eat them slowly and right in front of me, sometimes stretching it out for a couple of days, walking around with a little coconut chip stuck on his lip the whole time, like he just had to rub it in, the same way he rubbed in going to Yale and getting tapped for Skull and Bones and on to Harvard Law and his job in a Washington firm and the house he bought right next door to Dad’s. I’d rather die, I thought at the time.
I did come pretty close, more than once. That night with the eight-ball of blow and the hooker sitting on my face and the other one fellating me and it felt like my heart was going to jackhammer its way out of my rib cage and the next thing I knew I was on the floor, no girls, no coke, no money in my wallet. That guy who said he could turn my 10 grand into a hundred overnight, but then he disappeared and when I went to get it back, he pulled a gun on me. The time I got into a drinking contest with a surfer dude in a club in Ibiza and didn’t come out of the blackout until three days later, had to trade my watch to some nasty Spaniard to take me over to Mallorca in his leaky tub so I could go to the consulate and replace my passport and phone and scrounge up some cash until I could get my new ATM FedExed. I had to get Dad’s help that time, hated to do it, but it sure made the guy at the consulate move faster when he figured out whose son I was. I ignored his calls and emails for months after that, just didn’t want to hear it.
Of course, that lousy $150K wouldn’t have lasted these five years without a little help. About two years in, right after the trip to the Balearics, I ran into a guy I’d known back at Sidwell Friends. He’d actually finished there, went on to Swarthmore, but the whole Quaker thing turned out to be only a phase. He ended up in subprimes, then when that deal went south, sat on his money until real estate finished tanking, and then started buying properties in places like Atlanta and Phoenix. More than once, he told me, he bought houses or apartment buildings that he’d sold CDOs on for a tenth of what they’d been hocked for. The best kind of double dipping, he said.
My friend had some kind of database that let him see which areas had the most distressed properties. He wanted to buy them up in bulk, a block or street at a time. My job was to scout out the neighborhoods, and look for the places where houses were still occupied, where the pipes hadn’t been looted or the apartments totally trashed. These weren’t the cul-de-sacs full of abandoned McMansions that you read about in Dad’s paper, but places that had been marginal in the first place, where people were most pie-eyed at the prospect of home ownership. “The best of the worst,” he called it, and when I found him a good spot, he’d give me a vigorish off the purchase price and then, if the thing panned out, a piece of the take when he flipped it.
My strategy was to hang around these places for a few days or a week at a time, looking in windows and drinking in the local bars and chatting up the residents to see if I could figure out more than what the real estate agents were telling me. I’d buy someone a round or two, tell them I was thinking about buying the place they were living, see if I could wangle an invite into their house by implying they would most likely be able to stay after the purchase if they were nice to me. Word would spread, and by the end of my stay, I’d have been in maybe half the houses, and I’d have a pretty good idea of whether we could buy it, kick the people out, do some cosmetics, and flip the place in less than four months.
Of course I felt bad about this sometimes. I’m human, right? I don’t exactly know what Dad would think, because we were mostly out of touch during that time. But I would read his column from time to time, and he talked a lot about bad choices, and I have to say that these people I was meeting had made some doozies. And it wasn’t just the pregnant 16-year-olds and the deadbeat dads drinking on the street corner and the kids running dime bags. It was the real estate itself. Here they were, living in the places they’d bought—signed their names to the mortgage and everything—and hadn’t paid a dime on in years. Or evicted from one house up the street and living in another house that someone else had been evicted from, and doing it all over again when the bank caught up with them. They’d ask me how much their place might go for, and when I told them they’d whine about how come the bank would leave them in limbo for three years, or, worse, kick them out and then let someone else have the mortgage they could have afforded. I knew they meant me, but I didn’t take the bait, and we stayed pretty friendly.
And then one night in Orlando, after a few rounds, this guy pointed out that the banks would have been better off if they’d just negotiated that price before the pipes got stolen or the taxes went delinquent, said it didn’t make any sense to wait three or four years to get the same financial result and put a family out in the street in the bargain. Unless, of course, the whole point was to punish people like him, to teach them a lesson about who is in charge, about who needs forgiveness and who should dole it out, and in what form.
Once that guy got started, the rest chimed in, and that’s when it dawned on me. These people were like I had been with the Sno Ball. They wanted it all now and when they ended up with nothing, they were angry with everyone else in the world except the people who were responsible for their trouble—themselves. Especially the government. They seemed to think it was the government’s job to protect them from “predatory lenders,” as they called them (and I wonder what community organizer gave them that line) and to mete out justice to the people they held responsible for decimating their neighborhoods. They wanted to know why unemployment benefits had been cut off, food stamps reduced, school programs slashed, their neighborhoods left to the vultures, while the bankers got richer and the hedge funds hedgier, as if, now that they’d gobbled the Sno Ball, the government should step in and deliver three more on a silver tray.
Those people in Orlando didn’t seem to understand that the reason the government had forgiven the bankers and not them was that the bankers would know what to do with the forgiveness, while they would have probably just squandered it on their little families. They didn’t get it that the government stood ready to welcome them back to the fold, but only if they were ready to get the chip off their shoulders and pitch in, which they could do by working hard to strengthen their companies, or if they didn’t have a company, to rebuild the infrastructure, or if there weren’t any infrastructure rebuilding jobs to be had, by strengthening their church or embedding themselves in their community projects. “You have no idea what you are talking about,” the guy in Orlando said. “Not a fucking clue,” and took a swing at me. I ran out the door, hopped in my car and beat it out of that place, vowing to give it a big thumbs up so that we could kick those people out of their houses tout suite.
I don’t know if I would have gone crawling back to Dad right then, because maybe I was too stubborn and proud, but I knew already that the voice in my head was his. And then, just a couple of weeks later, my old Sidwell buddy stopped returning my texts. Not only that, but my bank account, to which he had access because I let him run cash through it, turned up empty and my credit cards, all of which were his company’s, were canceled, and all I had was the few hundred dollars in my pocket and my Beamer. I was 25 and nearly broke, and I had no other place to go.
It was a Friday night when I rang Dad’s doorbell. I figured Sammy and his wife and kids would be over for Shabbos dinner, and I heard them at the table, but it was Dad who came to the door in his stocking feet. He was still wearing his tie, but it was loose at his throat. He was holding a glass of scotch, and he looked wan and tired. (Later he told me he’d just come home from squaring off with E.J. Dionne on NPR, which I guess is harder than it sounds.) He blinked at me through his glasses, gestured me in. Right there in the hallway, I told him about the ungrateful man in Orlando, how I finally understood the lesson he was trying to teach me: that the world really didn’t owe me a living any more than it owed him one, that a man, no matter his race or creed or temperament or economic background, no matter how impoverished his neighborhood or how exploited his labor or how modest his desires, makes his own luck, and I begged his forgiveness. I got down on my knees and told him I was ready to go back to school if that’s what he wanted, that I’d earn my way by proofreading his columns or running his schedule or even shining his shoes. He reached down, pulled me up and into the biggest hug he’d ever given me. He told me that of course he’d welcome me back, and how there was probably a job for me on the Times business desk. We wept together.
Over Dad’s shoulder, I saw Sammy. His face was black with rage. “You’re going to reward him?” he said. He was nearly shaking. “Dougie just failed the Sno Ball test for the third time, and I’ve been using this idiot as the example of what happens if he doesn’t do better. What kind of message will this send?”
“The only message that is worth sending,” Dad said, and beamed at me. “That the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart. And when you finally realize that the problem is in that divided heart, that this world, or at least this society, offers everyone, regardless of circumstance, the CEO or son of an influential newspaperman the same as the chronically underemployed or the teen mom, the same opportunity to be good, and that it is our job to seize it—then you can be welcomed back to the fold.” Dad draped his arm around me. “Now, let’s eat,” he said, “and I’ll explain to you why I have become a Christian.”
January 5th, 2014
I said I was done, and I am, except for one thing–this, from politico.com, in its coverage of DAvid Brooks and Marijuana:
But the real coup was a response from one Gary Greenberg, who claimed to have been a member of Brooks’s high school stoner crew. His piece was full of all sorts of unsavory details about Brooks, including the allegation that Brooks’s practical pot joke once got an African-American student kicked out of school and sent to juvy.
However, Brooks had never heard of Greenberg. The essay was intended as satire, and hours after its publication Greenberg was forced to publish a note at the top which began, “What follows here is satire of the Juvenalian variety.” Penguin, Greenberg’s publisher, sent his piece to journalists (including yours truly) and, when asked if it was real, replied: “Indeed it’s satire – but still a hilarious piece.” Less so as satire.
OK, I’ll say up front that I have no idea what Penguin did or why, and I will overlook the question of whether the fact that something is satire makes it more or less funny (although I will point out that what varies with the genre is the target of the humor). But, and this is important, I was not “forced to publish a note” explaining that this was satire. I did it because I wanted to, out of courtesy to a reading public whose sensibilities I had obviously misjudged (although not entirely–plenty of people got the joke, and I think the people most likely to take me seriously were those who a) wanted to believe this was true and b) who had a deadline).
And I’ll point out, for the thousandth time, that while I am sure it is true that “Brooks had never heard of Greenberg” (actually, I’m not so sure; I’m guessing he read my Nation review of the Social Animal and wished he’d never heard of me), his statement is not what “debunked” (as so many other outlets put it) my story. I debunked my story. I debunked it by making it, as Zach Beauchamp, one of the very few reporters to bother asking, says, “epically preposterous.” I debunked it by telling everyone who asked that it was a satire. I debunked it by volunteering that information to the people who didn’t ask, which included many of the top news websites in the country, who were apparently in too much of a hurry to read the article carefully, let alone to ask me if it was true. And then I debunked it by putting that stupid, and widely ignored, to judge from my inbox and comments, disclaimer on the blog.
So don’t make it out like you guys tracked me down and forced me to confess like you were some kind of Eliot Ness to my Al Capone. I added that note of my own volition and even though it goes against my own instincts and principles, because it was really inconvenient to keep answering the question. Plus, people seemed upset, and I have come to see that the Internet has outdated my principles and instincts, and despite my best efforts, I am a responsible citizen and a decent person.
Further Reflections on Irony and Satire
January 4th, 2014
Here’s a comment that I think perfectly summarizes the problem (and the beauty) of satire. It comes from a guy named Chris Smith.
You’re totally not a hack for trying to excuse your defamatory hoax against a windbag like Brooks as “satire”, and your half-assed, belated “apology” is certainly sufficient. On behalf of everyone who read this well-plotted piece of non-claptrap, I sincerely thank you for wasting our time.
PS – the above is an example of actual use of “irony”.
Now, I had to read this two or three times to figure it out, and I’m still not 100% sure. I think what Smith is saying is that I am a hack, that my apology was insufficient, and that my piece was not non-claptrap or truly ironic. But it could work the other way–that it was not a defamatory hoax, that Brooks is a windbag, that his time was not wasted, that he’s sympathizing with my trouble in being understood as an ironicist. In other words, without knowing the valence of Chris Smith’s attitude toward me, it’s hard to tell what’s ironic and what’s not. I’m pretty sure I detected the valence after the third or fourth read, and that it is hostile, which makes the rest fall into place (but I’d point out, it works exactly the same way backwards). If Chris Smith were to contact me and say, “Dude, what have you been smoking? Of course I’m on your side,” I’d be a little embarrassed to think I’d spent all that time analyzing his comment and coming up wrong.
I don’t blame Smith a bit for my uncertainty, although I think he was probably more confusing than he intended. He made me think, which might contribute in some small way to delaying the onset of dementia. More to the point, if my understanding of his point was in some way crucial, if, say I was a writer or editor of a mass media outlet contemplating a piece about whether or not Gary Greenberg is a hack writer, I would reach out to Chris, who provided his email address, and just ask him. If he didn’t respond, or if his response didn’t clarify the question, I’d find some other way to find out–google him, ask his friends, look for other stuff he’s written, and so on. And I wouldn’t go forward until I had an answer that satisfied me, or if I did go forward, I’d note that I didn’t know exactly what the facts are here.
So let’s say you’re not Chris Smith, but Betsy Rothstein, a blogger for something called the Daily Caller. I’d never heard of either before yesterday at 10:53 a.m., which is about when I was pulling the battery out of the Bobcat. Her email went like this:
Name: Betsy Rothstein
Message: Hi there. I write for The Daily Caller in Washington, D.C. I’d like to talk to you about your David Brooks essay. I need to verify that this is real, that you actually knew him, smoked weed with him, etc…
Thank you so much.
P.S. My phone is 555-555-5555
It was one of fifty-seven emails that hit my inbox between 1045 and 1120. I thought I had answered it, but I think now that it was the one that my son was writing for me when he quit as my amanuensis. In any event, I did not answer Rothstein.
That didn’t stop her from posting, at 11:44 a.m. a story under the headline “Dude who smoked pot with DAvid Brooks surfaces, writes about it.” Unlike Chris Smith, Betsy Rothstein’s valence was unmistakable from the first sentence, wherein she describes me as “a p[sychotherapist who has been diagnosed with major depression." She does throw in a "he claims" and an "allegedly" here and there, but she obviously took the piece seriously, so seriously in fact that she confesses to finding it "so thick with bitterness and resentment... that it is almost hard to read."
Later (and I don't know when, because I wasn't aware of any of this until last night), she posted an update.
The Mirror has learned that Gary Greenberg, the psychotherapist who claims he smoked pot with NYT‘s David Brooks in a story on his blog is actually a hoax. There is absolutely no indication on his blog, however, that it is a hoax and Greenberg has a long list of credentials. The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza asked Brooks about Greenberg and Brooks said he doesn’t know him. In addition, Wired‘s Steve Silberman tweeted with certainty that it was satire and wrote that he “checked” on it. CNN’s Jake Tapper probably put it best: “People need to learn that creative lying does not = satire.” Greenberg’s site has yet to be updated with any clear sign that what he wrote was satire
So her intrepid reporting had exposed me as the hoaxster I would have told her I was if she';d waited for an answer. What she fails to report, however, is that Silberman weighed in at 10:50., more than an hour before she posted her report, and just few minutes before when she emailed me with her question about the truth status of my blog post. Her initial post came long (in Internet time) after the tide of journalists that had been lapping at my door was turned back by my immediate and unequivocal confirmation that the piece was satiric. But somehow the fault was mine. And I needed to be spanked--by Jake Tapper, and then by Rothstein herself, who, in case her dismay wasn't clear enough, posted another piece at 2:54 titled "Gary Greenberg adds his 'I was full of sh*t disclaimer." She said the notice I posted was "lame [sorry] and late.” I guess she must be right. As of this morning, I’m still getting comments on the article indicating that people are skipping right over the disclaimer. (But tell me, Besty, why the asterisk? Surely a website that claims that climate change is a hoax (a word they obviously know the meaning of [IRONY]), uses Nelson Mandela to sell its voter ID support, and runs an article suggesting that it should be a crime to speak up for Obama–surely such a media outlet knows wherein lies obscenity.)
Anyway, last night, I was going over the hundreds of emails I’d gotten, trying to make sure I’d responded to the ones I thought should be responded to. I saw that Betsy’s had gone unanswered. When I went to respond to it, I realized she was the person who had written this Daily Caller article, which I had just read. So I emailed her at 9:37 last night.
Betsy–It’s not real, but I guess you figured that out. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier today. Things got a little hectic around here. But here’s a question: if you were uncertain enough to ask, then why didn’t you wait until you got an answer?
Then I went to bed. This morning, this response was waiting for me.
Seriously? You wrote a completely false story and you ask why didn’t I wait? There was no indication for me to believe that what you wrote wasn’t real.
You’re a psychotherapist, right? You need to examine yourself. Your behavior as a writer disgusts me. No one should believe a word you say.
It was followed in my inbox by a twitter notification:
@Bookofwoe has some serious self-analysis to do. Such a lying prick. But it’s everyone else’s fault.
I didn’t know whether to fall in love or commit hari-kari.
But seriously, I guess Betsy Rothstein is aspiring to fill the Ann Coulter chair of American journalism. After all, if “there was no indication for [her] to believe that what I wrote wasn’t real” (and there is something really wrong with the syntax there), then why did she email me in the first place? You can’t have it both ways, Bets.
Wait a minute. Of course she can. It’s the Internet.
AS for Jake Tapper, I don’t really know who this guy is. My CNN exposure comes from The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. So that might explain my reaction, which is that I thought Creative Lying = cable news. Or Creative Lying = Daily Caller, which seems to specialize in climate-change-is-a-hoax and Obamacare-is-the-coming-of-the- Antichrist stories, although on second thought, that’s not so creative is it?
So my hat’s off to all those journalists who did their jobs, especially to the superbly named Zack Beauchamp
and his not so well named thinkprogress.org. I’m sorry if I got your hopes up that you’d have an excellent celebrity kerfuffle to palaver about for awhile, and another reason to hate on David Brooks (if only privately). To those of you who wanted to cross post it (as satire) anyway but were nixed by your editors, I feel your pain. And to all of you, I understand that the Internet is a demanding place, that nanoseconds count, that no one can afford to be the last lemming over the cliff, and I don’t envy you one bit for having to spend your days on the wrong end of a firehose spewing all sorts of toxicity.
Myself, I’m going back to my broken machines and my foul-mouthed son, and to Melville, whose point in the Confidence-Man seems to be that 1) the easiest thing to convince people of is something they already wanted to believe, and 2) that reading only starts with looking at words on a page, that you have to fully engage with the written material to understand it, and yourself, and your world.
I Broke the Internet’s Heart (HYPERBOLE)
January 4th, 2014
NB: Evidently, you are supposed to label everything you write on the Internet according to its genre. No one wants to tell me what the labels are, but I’m guessing things like “fact,” “fiction,” “myth,” “satire,” “truthy” “pointless speculation,” “character assassination,” and so on. So I’ll try to keep up with the times. Everything below is true unless labeled otherwise.
Yesterday I woke up at the usual time, poured myself a cup of coffee, and browsed the NY Times. The plan was to work on an essay I’m writing about, and I must reiterate this is FACT, The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville’s strange and marvelous novel about a man aboard a steamboat who hoodwinks passengers by telling them exactly what they want to hear. But I got sidetracked by David Brooks’s confession that he smoked weed in high school, which was followed by a lecture about the swinishness of all those who did not, as he did, quickly recognize that it was an IQ-point-shaving, idiocy-inducing pastime that was bound to result in embarrassment and moral decay. (SLIGHT EXAGGERATION)
Now, David Brooks has annoyed me before, but usually I swallow my bile along with my coffee and move on to stuff that’s important. There are exceptions, of course. I did write a pretty snarky review of his book The Social Animal for The Nation (called the book the love child of Malcolm Gladwell and Kilgore Trout), and I’ve mentioned him on this blog before, probably not to agree with him, and I think I’ve even tweeted about him, but usually I just let it go. David Brooks doesn’t care what I think about him, and I don’t blame him for that. And there are plenty of other people out there hating on him, and I don’t need to add to the hating. So why bother?
But still, this column…what really got me, even more than his faux-social-science-based haranguing was his blithe confession to committing (and getting away with) what was in his (and my) day a real crime, the kind of thing that if you weren’t affluent and (usually) white, would ruin your life. And in many places that’s still the case. As the father of a 15-year-old who may smoke pot one day, and as the therapist to plenty of people dealing with this concern, and as the citizen of a country that arrests something like 700,000 (NOT FACT CHECKED, BUT CLOSE TO ACCURATE) people every year for pot crimes, crimes that result in prison sentences, loss of jobs, loss of access to student loan money, expulsion from school and so on, I found this outrageous. So I thought about writing about it here on this blog. And then the voice in my head, the one that often gets me in trouble, said to me, “I smoked pot with David Brooks.” (FICTION; IRONIC INTENT; I NEVER SMOKED POT WITH DAVID BROOKS AND I AM GLAD FOR IT)
And then my other voice, the one that sounds a lot like my wife, said, “No, you can’t do that. It would be wrong.” And then my first voice said, “Yes, but it would be so much fun.” And then my other other voice said, “You have to write that Confidence-Man essay,” but then my first voice said, “Yeah, but the editor said you could have an extra few weeks on that,” and then all my voices said together, “Let’s do it.” (ENTIRE PARAGRAPH MADE UP, MOSTLY. THE VOICES ARE IMAGINARY, BUT NOT DELUSIONALLY SO. “IT WOULD BE WRONG” STOLEN FROM STANLEY ELKIN, WHO STOLE IT FROM RICHARD NIXON)
So I did. Then I emailed it to some friends and sent it out to my 300 fellow magpies on twitter. (METAPHOR) Then I went outside and started dealing with the snow and cold. Then my snow plow wouldn’t work–the hydraulic oil had waxed up in the cold. Then my Bobcat wouldn’t start–battery couldn’t handle the cold. So I got down on my old tired knees (EXAGGERATION0, took off the plow, got the battery out of the skidsteer, and made for the store.
But events intervened. While I was working on the battery, my wife had come out to the garage to tell me that my old buddy Steve Silberman had called wanting to know if it was true. That was my first clue. I got the next when my phone, which I’d grabbed on the way out the door, began giving the little ding-ding it makes every time I get an email, and which a friend says is the sound of an angel getting its wings. God was evidently making lots of angels. I read some of the emails. Lots of them were from editors at leading journals, online and print. The Atlantic, salon.com, slate.com, gawker.com, HuffPo, the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller (which will get its own entry eventually), and so on. Mostly, they wanted to know if they could cross-post the article. One of them offered me $250 if I’d let them do it RIGHT NOW, and when I didn’t get back for twenty minutes, my response went unanswered.
I was flattered, of course, but it occurred to me, given Steve’s phone call, that maybe they’d missed the irony (although I thought the scene with faux stoned David standing on top of his faux Mom’s Vista Cruiser waxing ecstatic about Edmund Burke was a dead giveaway, even if the story about Freaks and Lord Jim was not–not to mention that the piece including a “confession” that I smoke pot, which would be a really self-destructive thing to admit, since I don’t live in Colorado or Washington, have a kid, own property, and make my living as a licensed health care provider). So I got out of the truck, shucked off my shoes and coat, and wrote to the editors, “sure you can cross post, but you do realize this is satire, right?” (GENERALIZATION, SPECIFICS IN EACH EMAIL MAY HAVE VARIED, BUT NEVER ENOUGH TO OBSCURE THE FICTIVE NATURE OF THE BLOG POST) I was surprised when most of them said they did not, but not surprised when most of them then lost interest, sometimes without even bothering to respond. Nor more than a little disappointed–I didn’t write this thing with dreams of viral glory. I wrote it to entertain myself and whoever cared to read it, so if it wasn’t going to get the HuffPo seal of approval, who cares? Sic transit and all that.
Also somewhere in there, my web guy called (on the phone, so I knew it was urgent) and said I needed to moderate comments on my blog, which turns out to mean I had to approve comments for posting. By then there were like 50 of them, so all I did was to make sure they weren’t spammers or scammers before checking the box. I did notice words in there like hoax and dirtbag, so I figured I’d hit a nerve. Plus which, when my web guy reassured me that the site was handling the traffic, that was a tipoff too.
But I didn’t have time to deal with this. I had machines to fix. I put my warm clothes back on and headed to the auto parts store, with my fifteen-year-old and my dead battery and my ceaselessly dinging phone. He read me the messages. I asked him to respond to a couple for me. “I’m not your fucking secretary,” he said.
“Amanuensis,” I replied.
“Amanuensis. You’re not not my fucking secretary. You’re not not my fucking amanuensis. And you swear too much.”
“Greek word. Means assistant and…”
“Whatever.” (POETIC LICENSE: I THINK I THOUGHT THE BIT ABOUT AMANUENSIS, NEVER SAID IT, BUT THAT’S HOW MY SON WOULD RESPOND FOR SURE, AND HE DEFINITELY MADE THE FIRST COMMENT. FACT: KID COULD CURSE THE CHROME OFF A TRAILER HITCH.)
So I let the emails pile up, until I got home around 1 pm. Then I disappointed a few more editors, had a really fun conversation with a guy named Zack Beauchamp, added a notice to my blog warning readers they were about to read satire, and went back out to the garage which is, thankfully, an Internet-free zone. (EXAGGERATION: YOU CAN GET A BAR OF WIFI OUT THERE, AND A LITTLE BIT OF 3G AS WELL, BUT WHY BOTHER?)
What I didn’t know, and didn’t learn until Zack’s article came out, was that for like two hours (six centuries in Internet time) I was the talk of the Internet. People thought that Brooks’s former potsmoking buddy, resentful at being called a “full-on stoner” had come out swinging. I felt a little bad about that, mostly for the real full-on stoner, because now, if he wanted to take his potshot (INTENTIONAL PUN), he’d have all sorts of credibility problems, but also because it seemed like I’d put a lot of people to a lot of trouble for nothing. I mean, Ryan LIzza called David Brooks to find out if he knew me? Surely, those guys have better things to do. (And why didn’t he call me? The New Yorker has my contact information. I write for them from time to time, or at least I used to.)
I suppose that sounds stupid or naive or disingenuous or something like that, that I should have understood that this would happen, that in fact this is what I wanted all along–to get some publicity for myself by perpetrating a hoax. But–and I know you may not believe this, but this is FACT–I can’t see where the hoax is. Hoax implies fraud, fraud implies some intent to gain at others’ expense. What exactly did I set out to gain? Whom did I fleece of what? I thought the satire spoke for itself, the blog post was free, I didn’t get the $250, and anyone who asked got the truth right away. As for notoriety, or what the Internet calls “exposure,” this will all be forgotten by later today, as the next clusterfuck materializes out of the ether. (I will admit that I had a moment of thinking I might disappear for awhile, let the Internet sort it out, and of being irritated that by telling Silberman the truth so quickly, my wife had taken away that option, but that other voice prevailed.)
So who exactly got hurt? Brooks? He’d already confessed to smoking weed and, if I do say so myself, I made him sound like a pretty smart high schooler, especially for a (less than full-on) stoner. Who wouldn’t want to be remembered for connecting Lord Jim and Freaks as a senior in high school? The websites? They never did the cross-posting, because I told them the truth. The editors? Most of them asked the right question and moved on, as they should have; the rest I’ll address in the next post. The reading public? Now, that’s an interesting question, which I will answer with a story from my childhood that is FACT, as best as I can remember.
My paternal grandmother’s name was Dorothy. She was Hungarian, managed to get out in the 1920s, moved to a little town in the Alleghenies, then to another, where her husband became the proprietor of the Popular Store, a clothing and shoe store serving the coal miners and railroad men. They were the only Jews in town. My grandmother never learned to drive and had the immigrant’s natural wariness, so she didn’t get out much. But she was a smart woman, read all the time, including the newspaper. One day when we were visiting her, she read a column in the paper by Art Buchwald. (POSSIBLE CONFLATION. IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN BENNETT CERF BUT I’M PRETTY SURE IT WAS BUCHWALD) I don’t remember what it was about, and I won’t make it up, that being a sensitive spot right now, but it was some kind of satire. My grandmother came out of her bedroom clucking her tongue. “Lum,” she said (that was her nickname for my father), “I just read…” and proceeded to precis the column and deplore its content, whatever it was, as if it was true. It fell to my father to gently explain to her that Buchwald was only kidding. My grandmother was crestfallen and, I think, humiliated. No one likes to be fooled.
So I think that is what happened. There is something inescapably cruel about satire, at least good satire (which, I have to admit, I think mine was), and not only to its targets: it doesn’t work as satire unless the reader is trying to figure out if it’s true or not, unless you in some way play with his credulity. If the piece is too outlandish, it’s just farce, and if it’s too realistic it’s not funny. (I’d say it’s lame, but a correspondent has taken me to task for the “able-ism” of that word.) So it’s got to be plausible, funny, and focused. You have to think it’s possible that someone is actually proposing that the poor eat their young, and that this might make sense, for a Modest Proposal to work. But to the extent that the reader thinks it’s true, his generosity and trust are being abused. That doesn’t mean satire shouldn’t be written, but it does mean that you can expect people to get their feelings hurt. Add to that the fervent wish, expressed by many of my correspondents, that it was true, that David Brooks really was as a high schooler the same insufferable prig he is in his columns today, and that some former buddy of his was calling him on it in retribution for having been accused of having “sunk… into a pothead life,” and you have the grounds for some people to get upset and angry. In this small way, I broke their hearts.
Now, some of those people can take that in stride. Others want to claim that I have deliberately hurt them by hoaxing them. I can understand both perspectives. I’m more sympathetic to the first than to the second (and my emails and comments are running about 5:1 in favor of the striders [ESTIMATE]; I can’t figure out how to assess the twittersphere). If you can’t stand being challenged, I generally think, then stay out of the printed page. Besides, a little research, a little thought, a moment or two of reflection or inquiry, a second reading–these are all prophylactics against being fooled for more than a moment, or certainly would have been in this case. But it seems that I am obsolete in this respect. The Internet allows no time for any of that. Evidently, it’s no longer up to the reader to engage with what he or she is reading. Instead, it’s up to the writer to announce his intentions, although I have to say that seems to me to sort of take away the purpose of reading and writing. So I’m a little sorry for hurting their pride (which is why I apologized in the notice added to my blog post), but not overly so.
Next up: the editors.
I smoked pot with David Brooks
January 3rd, 2014
Please note: What follows here is satire of the Juvenalian variety. I thought I embedded enough tipoffs, but then again I forgot how much stranger than fiction truth can be. So to those who thought it was real and suffered pain as a result, I apologize.
Now that he’s gone and outed himself, I guess I’m free to tell the secret. I smoked pot with David Brooks. I was one of that “clique” with whom he had “those moments of uninhibited frolic.” There were seven of us. We all know what happened to Dave. The rest: a surgeon (rich), a dentist (gay), two lawyers (one dead already), one teacher and one househusband/artist (that’s me). I never spoke up before because I figured if I threw mud at someone whose whole career rests on being squeaky clean, well, that’s just mean. And it’s mostly irrelevant now. I mean, like he said, we’ve “aged out” and “left marijuana behind.”
Well, all except me. I still get high from time to time. It helps me deal with the kids, makes me more playful and my knees ache less when I get on the floor with them. Dave would probably say I delayed having them until so late because I was too busy getting stoned, and maybe he’s right, although I like to think I was waiting for the right woman and the right time. Anyway, I gather he doesn’t have any problem with my once a week toking, even if it’s “not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.” So even if social scientists have proved smoking doesn’t really make me more creative (although I could swear it does, and I’ve heard others say the same, but what do we know?), and even if it makes it impossible for me to “graduate to more satisfying pleasures”–although marriage, kids, reading, music, conversations with friends, I used to think those were pretty satisfying– I guess I’m okay in his book.
Funny thing. I didn’t know before this morning that I was the “full-on stoner” who was one of the four reasons Dave gave up weed. Sorry as I am to hear that our frolics are now his shameful 4 a.m. memories, after all these years of silence, it’s nice to know I mattered to him, that I was a significant part of the moral life of someone so important and with such a strong “sense of satisfaction and accomplishment”—an achievement I guess I made possible by teaching him that “one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.”
And here all along I thought he quit because of that time we got pulled over by the Radnor cops in senior year right after we’d clambaked his Mom’s Vista Cruiser, and first thing the cop does after the smoke clears is look him right in his red, red eyes, and said, “I don’t suppose it would go over so good if I went over to 632 Haverford Road and told Mr and Mrs Brooks their boy was out here with his clique smoking pot.” I was so impressed with the way Dave pulled himself together then. He didn’t beg for mercy or fight with the cop. Somehow he knew exactly how to go all bar mitzvah boy, how to talk to authority, how to flatter and impress and toady, even stoned to the gills, like his inner Eddie Haskell was deeper down than the pot could get. And it worked. The cop let us go, told us we were lucky he knew Dave and that we were white kids from Radnor, and later on, at the pizza house taking care of our munchies, chattering and cackling over our good luck and trying to figure out how Dave and the cop knew each other, busting on him for being a narc, Dave was quiet and pale and barely touched his hoagie, and I think that was the last time he smoked pot, at least with us.
But before that, did we have some uninhibited frolic! He wrote in his column about the time he got high during lunch and then “stumbled through” a presentation in English class. Too bad he didn’t go into the details. But I remember it pretty well. It was senior year. We all had to give a 10-minute talk about one of the leitmotifs in Lord Jim. We’d both chosen “one of us,” an idea that was totally DAve’s. He’d gotten after we smoked some insane Thai stick and went into Philly to see “Freaks” at the TLA. We’d figured out our talks on the train back home. Mine was going to be about how Conrad was being ironic, and the “us” weren’t exactly people you wanted to be one of. His was going to be about the way Jim’s “selfishness of a higher order” was a model for Hamiltonian government. Mine went off without a hitch, even though I was as stoned as he was. (But I was probably already the full-on stoner, so maybe I had a tolerance.)
But when Dave got up there, I think he was trying to be literary or casual or something, and he started in by saying that the idea had come to him watching Freaks, and he got totally sidetracked, the way you do when you’re good and high. “Oh, man, you shoulda seen it,” he said. “These, like, total freakazoids. This one? Prince something or other? No arms or legs, but he could roll a cigarette and then light it—with his mouth, man! He’d fit right in here at Radnor Get High…” and here he started giggling uncontrollably, and all he could say was “One of us, one of us, gobble gobble gobble” until Mr. Sedgwick had to tell him to sit down. (Later Dave told us he told Sedge he’d never done it before and he was really sorry and Sedge said he wouldn’t call his parents, but he (Dave) was such a good boy he knew he wouldn’t do that again.)
The other part he didn’t tell was about how we got high at lunch. This was back when you could smoke at school. Cigarettes, I mean, but naturally that wasn’t all we smoked. Smokers had to go to an area set up outside the cafeteria, hemmed in by the other wings of the building, sort of like a cell block. Architects must have been stoned or something, or maybe that was back when we didn’t care so much about smoking, but anyway they put the air intake for the second floor in a corner of the cell block. So we were smoking this joint of Jamaican over in that corner and Dave got the bright idea to blow the smoke into the register. “That’ll make everyone up there one of us!” he said. And sure enough when we went up to class the whole floor stank and the vice-principal was hustling up and down the hallway, wrinkling his nose like a bloodhound trying to figure out where the smell was coming from, and then he went into the boys’ room and dragged out one of the only two black boys at Radnor High, yelling at him for smoking pot in school.
I remember the guilty look on Dave’s face when he saw Mr. Santangelo with the kid by the collar. Later on, he told me that he was tempted to confess, but he also happened to know that that boy did smoke pot, that he was a full-on stoner, so if he got in a little trouble, it might be good for him. When I read today that Dave thinks that “not smoking, or only smoking sporadically gave you a better shot at becoming a little more integrated and interesting,” while “smoking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center,” I thought about that boy and wondered if getting kicked out of school had helped him hold together his deep center, and if his going to juvy was the kind of subtle discouragement that Dave thinks governments should engage in when it comes to the “lesser pleasures.” I suppose he thought he was doing the kid a favor by letting him take the rap.
There were other frolics, of course. Not with girls—Dave wasn’t much for the girls, all fumbly and mumbly and the pot just supersized his nerdiness. But culture and politics, those great interminable debates. Beatles or Stones, pipes or papers, negotiate over the hostages or send in the troops. Dave had a way of starting off all reasonable, usually talking about how both sides were equally bad. But the stoneder he got, the more opinionated he became, and his opinions—well, let’s just say that when Dave wrote this morning that in a healthy society “government subtly encourages the highest pleasures” I remembered a time we were parked out at French Creek and he stood up on top of the Vista Cruiser and gave a speech to us about what Jefferson really meant by the “pursuit of happiness,” and how a government should uphold our right to get as high as possible, and how George Washington grew pot and old Edmund Burke must have smoked it, and I wondered if Dave was sending his old posse a secret message. I wondered if, especially now that he’s past fifty and divorced and all that, he’s getting a little tired of maturity, of being harnessed to “the powers of reason, temperance, and self-control,” not to mention to the New York Times, he wanted us to come take him out and apply some subtle peer group pressure to his “moral ecology.”
Which we’d be glad to do. I just found the other guys on facebook. Flights to Denver are cheap. Pot tourism is already happening, we can buy a cheap package, maybe even find a Vista Cruiser to rent or an air register to blow our smoke into, bake a whole floor of the hotel. If you’re reading this, Dave, consider it an invitation. Let’s go encourage our lesser pleasures, relive those days before we aged out and got all inhibited and gray, give ourselves some new embarrassing memories to wake up to at 4 a.m. Because there’s only one thing worse than waking up in the wee hours reminded of what an idiot you can be, and that’s having nothing at all to trouble you, just the smooth satisfaction of success.