Scotland: The Update
December 21st, 2014
It took a little while, but some folks in town have now read Scotland–mostly in paperback form. (I made a paperback–more on that in a minute.) The reviews are mixed. Russell Perry seemed to like it fine. My farmer friend thought it made a nice read, although he wished I hadn’t repeated the rumor about the pastor. He was probably right about that. My truck driver friend also liked it, expressed admiration for my finding so many words. The former first selectman and the current town clerk are evidently irate (I have that second hand, although the FFS was decidedly cold to me on the phone the other day), and Bud, so I hear, went ballistic about the pastor rumor thing.
Oddly, I don’t seem to mind any of this. Maybe I’m just getting old. It’s not that I don’t care–I feel a little trepidatious whenever I venture out these days, and I really do regret the remark about the pastor. It was unnecessary, just one of those things you write because it is a nice detail, but overlook that there are real people involved. But really I can see why people would be upset, even if I think I tried hard not to be mean and to see things from their point of view. It’s hard to find yourself written about even when you know it is coming, and these people did not. You lose control over your identity; it’s a violation of privacy, or so it feels. Of course, it really isn’t, especially when the events being depicted happened in public, and on the public record, but still.
Only one citizen has had the moxie to confront me directly. That would be Pete the Farrier, who started his comments in the public discussion section of our last zoning commission meeting by objecting to my calling him that. It seems that my leaving out last names (or sometimes names entirely) was disrespectful. I didn’t fully understand that, but it seemed to have something to do with credentials. Wendy is a captain and her husband is a veterinarian, he told the commission. It didn’t quite make sense, but I think the overall point is that I’d given people short shrift. He also said that it was not right for me to have profited off my involvement in this matter, or to be simultaneously running the zoning commission and writing about it. Here again, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but I think what he was saying was that it isn’t fair to people who come before the commission to think that in addition to my power to determine the fate of their application or request, I might write about them.
That’s probably a fair objection, although I don’t think it rises to the level of a conflict of interest over which I ought to resign or be deposed as chair. The commission agreed with me–as it happened, Pete’s comment came just before we elected our board of officers for the upcoming year, and I was re-elected without opposition. But I can’t say I entirely disagree with him. I suspect that people will always associate me now not only with the sex offenders (and I hear they are calling the Reliance House home “Greenie’s Sex House,” which I think is hilarious) but also with another betrayal: the one that inevitably follows the journalist’s seduction.
I did have a chance to talk to Pete after the meeting. He clarified one thing: the big objection seems to be that “you made us sound like ignorant country bumpkins, like hicks from the sticks.” To which the obvious response is something about what you do when the shoe fits. I didn’t say that, however, because it doesn’t seem quite adequate. I mean, I know I didn’t come out and call anyone a hick, and my tone was far from ridiculing. I tried to uphold everyone’s dignity, which in my world means seeing it from their point of view. But sometimes that doesn’t matter. Even if you’ve made racism comprehensible, or attributed narrow-mindedness to legitimate fears, or chalked up scapegoating to ancient and perhaps immutable human tendencies, and even if you’ve resisted self-righteousness or even moral certainty, still you’ve shown people at less than their best and frozen that version of them in amber. I wouldn’t mind if some of them examined themselves and decided to try to be different, but that wasn’t my intention either. My intention was to tell a story.
There is something heartless about writing, and it’s really beyond apology. I’m not crazy about Janet Malcolm, but she sure had this right. And it may be that living in a small town and writing about it is one of those have-it-both-ways dilemmas. You know, the kind that test character.
Our conversation lasted for about a half hour. We talked about the problem with sex offenders, and somehow got on the topic of the closing of the mental hospitals. He told me about what one of the men at the house had done to get arrested, and it sounded really gruesome. We talked about small town life. We complained about our high taxes. I told him that the only thing he’d done or said that really bothered me was calling me a liar in front of so many of my fellow citizens. I told him that people respect him, they listen to him, and that he needed to be careful about what he said in public. (Fine advice from the guy who repeated the rumor about the pastor.) We shook hands and went home.
Anyway, the story continues. It will always continue. Whether or not the paperback ends up in the library is an interesting question. It probably should, but I don’t want to put the librarian in that position.
Scotland: The Epilogue
September 26th, 2014
This won’t make much sense until you read the e-book. So go do that, and then come back here for the rest of the story.
Rumors, spread mostly by me, of my own demise have proved to be exaggerated. I’m still here. I’ve got my eye on a nice little plot in the cemetery. And while there are some people who might like to see me move into that little piece of real estate sooner rather than later, for now I am still the Chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission of the Town of Scotland.
Not that this resolution came easily. In the first few weeks after my Hester Prynne moment, someone called the regional health district office to lodge a complaint about the septic system at the house, which she deemed insufficient for the fifteen staff people that the group insisted, against all the evidence, were living there. A state police prowl car parked in front of the house set off a flurry of phone calls to the first selectman, wondering whether one of the residents had escaped. (The police had logged it in as an “administrative visit.”) Another email from me to Wendy, this one offering to discuss the re-definition of family, went unreturned. The Town Hall ladies were treating me with some mixture of pity and contempt. I let on to the first selectman’s administrative assistant, the woman whose financial practices I had questioned when she was first selectman, that this was beginning to really bother me. “Been there. Done that,” she said, and I thought I saw the satisfaction of revenge in her eyes.
A sympathetic woman emailed me a draft of the petition being circulated by the Truly Concerned Citizens of Scotland, as the group was now calling itself. “Inconsistencies in the dissemination of information from the only public official to have knowledge of the facility have caused extreme concern and panic within the community,” it said. I had “made [my] career working in the Mental Health field,” had written and published books, was “a licensed practicing psychotherapist and so, at the very least, there is the appearance of impropriety.” Not only that, but I had failed to uphold the mission of the zoning commission set forth in the introduction to the zoning regulations—to preserve property values, promote the general welfare, and “secure safety from fire, PANIC, and other disasters.” And so I should resign—and not just me, but two other commissioners, both of whom the TCC had found guilty of spotty attendance at meetings, and one of whom, because he had received approval for a subdivision, was guilty of conflict of interest.
The TCC canvassed at the dump. They went door-to-door. They set up shop on the grade school grounds, with the approval of the principal. (She may have been unaware that allowing the TCC to advocate on public property opened the door to any other political group—the Ku Klux Klan, say, or maybe NAMBLA—that wanted the same access, or she may just have been sympathetic, or perhaps just afraid to say no to a group of enraged moms. I was in any event not in a position to point this out.) The TCC planned to present the petition at the next regular zoning meeting, three weeks after the initial one. I heard they were making t-shirts for the occasion. I wondered if the silkscreen would feature a man in the stocks.
I found myself thinking about Richard Nixon, Chris Christie, Rod Blagojevich, and all the other once successful public figures who had been found guilty in the court of public opinion long before any judicial proceedings—and guilty not of their crimes, but of something more fundamental: of being scoundrels. I wondered about the anatomy of downfall, how much these collapses were due to the material evidence—the tapes and emails, the money stashed in freezers, the wide stances and stained dresses—and how much the result of being scoured to the bone by a narrative wind. I mean, show me a person whose integrity can withstand the assault of a storyteller armed with animus and the Internet, and I’ll show you a unicorn. And show me a person who can tolerate that treatment for very long, and I’ll show you a politician, or at least someone with a belly that burns hotter than mine.
Not that there wasn’t material evidence. I had not sounded the alarm, and of course I could have. I could have easily let the news slip at Town Hall or the post office and let gossip take its course; the resulting ugliness would at least not have been about my character. And I had presided over the redefinition of family; there was no question that I thought marriage and blood were inadequate criteria for determining who should be able to live together. You didn’t have to be a Rove or a Goebbels to weave these facts into a story about my wish to socially engineer Scotland, especially not now, when narrative studies have escaped the academy, spin doctoring has become a national pastime, and every man has been crowned a hermeneutical king. And you didn’t have to be a coward to decide you didn’t want to subject yourself any further to that treatment. I decided to resign.
But not quietly. Much as I am in favor of taking responsibility for my life, if for no other reason than the illusion it provides that fate is not really in charge, at some point being responsible means getting over yourself. Sometimes it means recognizing that other people are the problem. Sometimes, in other words, it means telling citizens, truly concerned or not, where the bear shits in the buckwheat.
That expression, by the way, is one of the best things I’ve learned from Russell Perry. I love its profanity and its alliteration and its strange juxtaposition of beast and grain. I’ll bet you will find yourself saying it at least once in the next week or so. But don’t squander it. It would be a shame to turn it into a cliché.
My opportunity to use it came at the first monthly meeting of the zoning board after our big night. It was held at the firehouse. About 80 people showed up, far fewer than the earlier meeting, but many more than usually attend. Some of them wore blue t-shirts that bore a crude map of Scotland over the words, “Truly Concerned Citizens of Scotland.” The women who had jeered me sat together. Wendy’s husband was with them. He never said a word.
Early in the meeting, I introduced a lawyer from the U.S. Attorney’s office. His name was David Nelson, and he had come all the way from New Haven to talk to us about the Americans with Disabilities Act. It wasn’t hard to persuade him to make the trek—he’d caught wind of the kerfuffle and was eager to head off any violations of civil rights, as well as to try to offer clarity and an outside perspective on the topic. With his Elliot Ness eyes and Jack Friday suit, Attorney Nelson looked every bit the part of a no-nonsense lawman—an impression his PowerPoint about the history of disability or his everyday stories about returning vets and service dogs in restaurants did little to soften.
Only a few slides in, the crowd rebelled. They didn’t want to listen to some government lawyer trying to drum up enthusiasm for sex offenders by talking about war heroes and handicap ramps. They wanted to talk about GPS chips and locked fences and bars on windows. They wanted to talk about the ruination of their town.
After a few citizens had gotten in their licks, Pete the farrier rose from his seat. “Welcome to Scotland,” he said, a touch of droll in his voice. He reassured the attorney that the town had nothing against disabled people. But criminals—well, that was a different matter. People understand the difference between disability and criminality, he said, a point picked up by subsequent speakers. The problem, as one of them put it, was that the residents of Reliance House were “hiding underneath the label of disability.” How was it possible that the town could not have a say about the criminals in its midst? Why didn’t they have to prove that they were really disabled before they could move into the house?
“The President and Congress made a decision,” he replied. “You can’t make people continually prove their disability. It’s the law,” and if you don’t like it, “you can write your congressman and tell him to change the law.”
“But we’re not discriminating against disability. We’re discriminating based on their being criminals,” the woman responded. Can’t a town limit how many criminals can live together? Can’t it require its criminals to place perimeter alarms on their houses? Can’t it lock the gates around their houses?
“You want to lock them up again?” he asked. He sounded incredulous.
“We just want the town to be safe.”
“If I understand you right, you’re saying that certain segments of the population should be subject to scrutiny in the form of microchipping and locked perimeters,” he responded, “even after they’ve done their time. By that logic, why not restrict everyone?”
“But if you have any experience at all with people in prison, you know that if you put a bunch of criminals together everyone knows what happens. They get ideas from each other, they…”
“Ma’am,” he said, “I am a Federal prosecutor. I understand what criminals are.”
After nearly an hour, Assistant US Attorney Nelson was still only on his third slide. He had not managed to persuade the crowd that the government was here to help, and they had not convinced him to order up those fences and microchips. I cut off his presentation, with apologies, on the grounds that we had other business to attend to, and opened the hearing on our definition of family. I steeled myself, but the argument never materialized. Our proposal to decide how many dogs constituted a kennel generated more controversy than our attempt to decide how many people made a family.
I doubted the Truly Concerned Citizens had finally accepted the fact that we weren’t trying to give back-door accommodation to criminals. More likely, I thought, they had noticed the contradiction between hating the government and asking it to enforce their notion of family. Or perhaps that they were keeping their powder dry for other matters, like their petition. And that was a battle in which I intended to take the first shot.
“Before we move on,” I said, “I have something to say.”
I’d been thinking about my speech for a week or so, in the obsessive way you think about what you would have said to someone who mistreated you or someone you love. In the car, in the shower, taking a walk, it asssembled itself. I never bothered writing it down but by the time of the meeting I knew just what I wanted to say. The speech was a real stemwinder, at least by modern standards—a good ten minutes or so of oratory. It had been a hard few weeks, I said. Some people’s expectations that the government would keep them safe had been sorely disappointed, and they suddenly found themselves living in fear. For my part, I’d seen relationships cultivated over three decades disrupted and destroyed. I’d felt the strain and so had my family. I’d withstood their withering four-hour attack—at a meeting, I reminded them, that I had convened for their benefit and at which no one had stood up for me—without lashing out at them. I’d done that, I said, because I thought that having someone to blame would be helpful. I wasn’t glad to have provided this service, but only in hopes that they would get it out of their system and move on.
But then, I told them, I heard about the petition, and that it wasn’t just me they were after, but two other commissioners, men who had collectively served for 45 years. “Where are you going to stop?” I asked. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” I wanted to say, but did not–although on the tape I can hear the words on the tip of my tongue.
“I would love the opportunity to defend myself,” I said. “I’d love the opportunity to hear how it’s a conflict of interest that I work in the mental health field and write books, and that I then went on to make no decision about Reliance House.” But I’m not going to do that.” I reminded them that conflict of interest is a serious charge, an accusation that carries legal weight. “Maybe you didn’t think this through,” I said, but the town would have to pay for my defense. “And that would be wrong”
And then to the point. “I didn’t sign on to the zoning board because I have some love for zoning. I’m a hippie-libertarian at heart. I signed on because I wanted to help out. That’s all. And if I can’t do that, if in fact I am hurting the town, if I’ve become a polarizing figure who is going to cost us money to defend against charges that are frankly ridiculous, then I am not going to do that. So I will resign as you have asked.”
All this was prepared. What wasn’t prepared, and what I was not prepared for, was the way my voice broke when I got to this part. I’d been too busy feeling relieved and vengeful to recognize how sorry I was to be doing this, and how little choice I felt I had. I just didn’t have whatever those downfalling politicians had that allowed them to persist until the last jury rendered the last verdict, and I realized just how disappointed I was in myself about this, how limited the satisfactions of passive aggression, how much I would miss presiding over this well-meaning if doomed attempt to negotiate the terms of living together, and the cavalcade of citizens marching through with their real estate wishes and dreams. And although I had come into the meeting fully prepared to quit, and at least partly relieved at the prospect, I suddenly found myself wavering, and then off message entirely.
“The only condition, the only way I can not do this, is if that petition disappears,” I said. “Either it goes away by the end of the day tomorrow, or I do.”
I probably should have stopped there, but really, how many bear-in-the-buckwheat moments does life offer you? So I threw in a few extras. I told them I commended what they had done, even if I didn’t commend them for how they treated me. And then I told them the story of Guy and me, including the part about apologizing to him—”because I was ashamed,” I said—and explained that this is how I got to be the chair of the zoning commission. “My point is, this is going to happen again,” I said. “It’s in the nature of the people in small towns to turn on one another, and it seems to be increasingly in the nature of our entire country. And the next time it does, please have some humanity. Don’t make the mistake I made with Guy. Remember that the person you are tearing to pieces is a human being who wants the same thing you do—a beautiful town in which to live.
“And that’s all I have to say.”
The room was silent. But then the first selectman stood to speak. He said that he didn’t want me to resign. He told me he thought I had done a good job as chair of the zoning board. So did a farmer. And a couple of members of the board. And our zoning agent. And even Russell Perry, who attends all our meetings but rarely speaks in public. He told a little story about how he’d been one of the first zoning board members, and how hard it had been to do the job. It would be a great loss to the town if I resigned, they all were saying. They didn’t exactly beg, but it was clear that something had shifted, at least enough for some people to risk being on my side and to let me know I mattered to them.
Which I have to admit was deeply gratifying, in exactly the way it would be in a movie, when, say, the Pale Rider finally sets things straight in the lawless town. Only I didn’t have to wear a leather coat or learn to ride a horse.
When Wendy said that she wasn’t sure she could get the petition turned back, that this wasn’t her decision to make, I was pretty sure that she could, and it was, and she would—and the next day she did. But I already knew the tide had turned. I knew it as soon as Pete strode back into the room. He’d missed my performance while having a smoke and a chat with a former first selectman, but he picked up where he’d left off. “I’ve been reading your minutes,” he said, “and I’m just disgusted. This is the analogy I’m going to use. You seem like the guys at the Moose Lodge. You agreed on this, you agreed on that, you agreed on who’s bringing the sauce for the spaghetti dinner, on who’s bringing the meatballs. Are we going to have meatballs or sausage?” Three weeks ago, or just a half hour ago, these would have been excellent laugh lines. But now he was greeted with silence, and an uncomfortable one at that. “Huh,” he said. “It sure feels different in here.”
After the meeting, people came over to me to shake my hand. Yankees to the last, they said very little, but it was there in the smiles, in the nods, in the way one woman–a woman who had been in the forefront of the attack–held onto my hand for just a moment longer than a handshake really takes. It was as if they were congratulating me, but mostly I think they were thanking me for finally defending myself. I had put out a fire that, much as it might once have warmed them, had gotten out of control. And for regaining some of my dignity. An individual’s dignity belongs to the community too, and to insist on it is not only to spare everyone the pain of cringing for someone else, but also to make everyone a little stronger.
So for now anyway, I’m still the Chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission of the Town of Scotland, County of Windham, State of Connecticut. Some things are different. Wendy, leader of the Truly Concerned Citizens, is now the clerk of the zoning board; we had an opening and she was the only one to apply. I think she wants to keep an eye on us. So does Pete, who came with his wife came to our last meeting, presumably to make sure we weren’t just talking about spaghetti. The fire has not gone out completely. When a commissioner brought up the subject of regulating where sex offenders can live, the air was suddenly thick. But calm prevailed, and we moved on to the question of how many horses makes a commercial riding stable. The surface comity, the kind that is neither deep nor dangerous, had been restored.
Recently, the farmer I have Saturday breakfast told me he had had a conversation with the first selectman. They’d been talking about the way the fight over Reliance House was a battle between “old Scotland” and “new Scotland,” and how old Scotland had prevailed. I wasn’t so sure they were right about that, but even if they were, and even if I was gratified to be granted membership in the old-timers’ club, I was pretty certain that the victory, if that’s what it was, was only temporary. No matter what measures we take, no matter how concerned the citizens, time’s fingers will continue to claw away at the familiar. New houses will be built and new gravestones laid, new worries will chatter in our heads, new beliefs will take hold, and new people will move to town.
September 26th, 2014
It’s been sort of fun not writing. And not the not-writing that you do when you’re supposed to be writing, but the not-writing you do when you have decided to do something else for a change–finishing a barn, working on my fleet of cars, helping your kid build his rock crawler, although every day he leaves me farther behind in the dust, skill-wise.
Not that it’s been all not-writing. I wrote a review for the Times Book Review. And one for AMerican Scholar, of Leslie Jamison’s wonderful book, The Empathy Exams. An essay for The Believer, which is also sort of a book review, that will see the light of day sometime this decade, and another one that’s still only a twinkle in the eye of an editor at a journal that has “book review” in its title. I guess book reviews are what writers do when they are not-writing.
One reason I’ve been not-writing is that there is so much else to do, much of it gratifying in ways that writing can’t be. Hammer nails, saw a 2×4, put wrench to bolt, split wood–the rewards are so pure and immediate: a new building, a car that runs, a stack of firewood. And if you strip the bolt or muff the cut, you just fix that problem, no harm, no foul, no wondering whether you are stupid or senile or just a fraud. But another reason is that I would like to bust out of the psychiatry ghetto, and that’s harder to do than I wish it were.
Or it was anyway, until my neighbors handed me an opportunity. They didn’t mean to do that. They just meant to make themselves feel better about what they considered a disaster: a group home moved into town, and two of its three residents were registered sex offenders. Because I am the chairman of our local zoning board (or at least I think this is why), I was held responsible for their terror, and the result was a donnybrook of Hawthornian proportion. Which, naturally, I wrote about. It’s got a little bit about the mental health industry in it–mostly because my membership in that racket became part of the charges against me–but mostly it’s about other matters. Mostly it’s about the truth of the Sartrean maxim about Hell and other people.
The resulting essay constitutes my first foray into e-publishing. It’s a kindle single. I know, I know: amazon?! Well, don’t worry, I’m not going to be moving dead bodies for Jeff Bezos or attending his secret parties anytime soon. I consider this a long-awaited reach around, which is about all we lowly content serfs can expect these days, but is better than a sharp stick in the eye. Or in the somewhere else. And the folks at kindle singles have been very kind and helpful and competent, and they came up with a really nice cover. The essay is called Scotland (which is the name of the town that gave me my Hester Prynne moment), and it costs $1.99. You can find it here. I guarantee you it will be worth your two bucks to read it, and if it makes you feel any better (or less scornful), I get to keep $1.40 of that. (I know that makes me feel better.) And for your trouble I am throwing in, absolutely free, a an epilogue, right here on this blog.
OK. Enough justification. Next up, the epilogue.
I am David Brooks’s Deepest Self
March 14th, 2014
Fucking scientists! First they’re showing me these really great pictures of naked ladies, I mean totally naked, nipples and everything, and just when I’m getting in the groove, I’m picturing Debbie Lowenstein’s face instead of the model’s, and she’s whispering that it’s okay for me to do what I want to do to her, finally after all these years and Dave doing his best to stop it from happening, and they sneak up behind me and pop a paper bag next to my ear. Fuckers. I tried my best to hold on to that picture in my head, Debbie all naked and ready and shit, I mean you have no idea how hard it is to stay focused under those circumstances, especially when I’m still recovering from those damn kids he insisted on having, kept me up all night, plus all those years the wife was totally unavailable, years of either riding the hump or listening to her bitch about how she’s all tired and crabby from the kid being at her tits all day, and I’m just beginning to get my mojo back, Debbie’s right there, I’m feeling the old tickle in my balls, and POP!
The next thing you know, the scientists are nodding to each other about how I’ve become less alert to danger. But did they ask me? No, they did not. So I couldn’t tell them that I was fully aware of the noise, my prefrontal cortex was actually screaming in my ear, but I was just telling it to shut the fuck up before Debbie abandoned me. Which she did, of course. And then, the next next thing you know, Dave is going on about how this proves something about something about love.
Oh, well. I guess I should be used to it. He may not hear me, but I can hear him just fine. Dave doesn’t think so, of course. He probably doesn’t even think I’ve learned English, or that I’m there every minute of every day—when he tears up listening to Kate say to Bogie, “Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above,” or when he writes in his diary that night, “Good thing for Charlie that Rose was on the African Queen long enough to ovulate. But too bad for her. She should have stuck to her guns rather than turn into just another slightly higher animal. But at least she got Charlie to sacrifice himself in the end.” Or when he reads about some fancy theologian who says that suffering is a good thing because it scours away the floors and gets you deeper and deeper, like life is a housekeeping Olympics, and the winner is the one who scours not just the dirt but the tile itself, like I’m just scum to be scrubbed away by the steel wool of Dave’s higher self. I feel so misunderstood, and I’m really getting tired of it.
See, I know you don’t believe this, Dave, but I am as deep as it gets. And I’m smart enough to know what you think of me, that I’m just some sort of Caliban to your Ariel, natural selection infused into dopamine and testosterone, and then distilled into impulses and predispositions that need to be transformed into something spiritual and permanent like dying for my religion, or working for NPR. Whether either of us likes it, I’m along for the ride. I am right there in your tongue as it clucks at the scientists who insist that human nature is no more or less than Plato’s chariot, executive function struggling to rein in both reason and impulse for no higher purpose than the preservation of the species. I am in your brain as you insist that there must be more to it than this animal imperative, that true depth is achieved only when you choose to suffer, that the good society is the one that affords ample opportunities to make that choice, maybe even insists upon it. And I’m in your eyes when you read your own newspaper, the one that chronicles the suffering that people don’t choose, all those poor benighted people who can only flail in the shallows of their own squalid origins, whose suffering has no depth and can only be relieved by following their animal impulses.
I’m dying in here, Dave. And not only because you dismiss me as fragmented and swinish, or think that your life is meaningful only to the extent that you can turn me into something I’m not. Religious people have been doing that for thousands of years. It’s because you don’t seem to understand how much you need me. Who do you think created you or drove you to your lofty newsprint perch? Where do you think the idea that the world needs more suffering comes from, or the belief that words like “web of unconditional loves” or “permanent commitments to transcendent projects” actually mean something, or the conviction that there isn’t enough suffering the world? Where do you think you get the capacity to overlook the hubris of your pronouncements, the superficiality of your grasp of science, the vapidity of a notion like “core wounds and core loves”? From me. You get all this from me, from this dirty-minded, low-rent, hedonistic, power hungry animal who lives deep inside you. Add it up, Dave. You owe me. Big time.
Actually, when the scientists showed up with the pictures, I thought you were paying me back. I actually believed for a moment you were finally recognizing that we’re in this thing together, Rose and Charlie fighting and fucking our way onto Lake Victoria, blowing up the Louisa, just letting it rip. And I thought I was repaying your gratitude with that photoshop job, Debbie L. so perfectly rendered, ready for our mutual delectation. I thought we were going to get closer to even. And then POP!
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.
He repeated the experiment 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). And just as the scientists (and Dad) predicted, 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. So I’d better start making good choices.
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 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.”