Mr. Irresponsible's been feeling sort of logy lately. What's an advice columnist to do when the big story in the news is one old white guy shooting another old white guy in the face and (we subsequently find out) the heart? How am I supposed to mill advice-giving gold from that? What am I supposed to say: "Hey, don't do that"? Advice columnists live in a shadowy world of nuance and interpretation, and there's no room here for either. So I'm off on a therapeutic fact-finding tour to America's heartland, and will be back next week with fresh ambiguities for your delectation. Tune in then, won't you? And remember to keep your shotgun pointed at the ground, for God's sake.
This is the archived text of a weblog I did to promote my book "Mr. Irresponsible's Bad Advice: How To Rip The Lid Off Your Id and Live Happily Ever After" (Volt Press: 2005). I had the idea that if I continued to essentially add to the book every day on the Web, and GIVE THAT WORK AWAY FOR FREE, people would be so charmed that they'd feel compelled to buy the original work.
Not so much, as it turns out. But I had fun anyway.
It isn't often I come across an expression of outrage so withering that it makes me look shy in comparison. When I do, I have the good sense to step out of its way. So here's Garrison Keillor -- yes, that Garrison Keillor -- just absolutely flaying the living skin off French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville." There's something downright inspirational about Keillor's pique, and it goes beyond the frisson you get from seeing a smartypants know-it-all cut down to size. I think it has something to do with an eminence like Keillor, who has built a career out of a sort of stylized reticence, rising up in righteous wrath. It's like watching Bruce Banner morph into The Incredible Hulk, if Banner were from Minnesota and spoke really, really quietly:
You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.
And that's just the first paragraph.
Mr. Irresponsible's battered fedora is tipped to Keillor today. Go take a look. (N.B., Keillor's piece was published by The New York Times, a paper with such high regard for its online readers that it allows them to enjoy both a draconian signup process and a battery of popup ads. Which is so typique of the morally bankrupt American intelligentsia, don't you know.)
1) Never put anything on paper. Especially internal policy memos, lest typist/flunky turn around and peddle them to Huffington Post.
2) Have typist/flunky explain to me again what Huffington Post is.
3) Fire typist/flunky.
As part of our continuing campaign to add more pointless functionality for YOU, the reader, look down on the right. No, down. On the RIGHT. There you go -- under the "Email Me" heading. We've hooked up with the fine folks at Squeet.com to offer more-or-less real-time email subscriptions to this weblog. It's fun, it's easy, and it promises to let you squander your online time in an even more efficient fashion. Skol!
Okay, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Hey, where's Mr. Irresponsible been? We miss his brisk, biting commentary on modern manners! Gosh, we hope he's okay! We hope he hasn't gotten trapped under something heavy, or been driven deep into a piano-shaped hole in the sidewalk by a falling piano!" I appreciate your good wishes. And I could tell you I've been out of town or down with the flu, but those would be lies. They would fall under the rubric of the "lifestyle lie," as sketched in my new book -- that is, a small deception designed to ease the teller out of some bigger social inconvenience. Because the truth is, I just haven't felt like working very hard this week. And I refuse to apologize for it. Some very fine people have been refusing to work hard lately. Judge Samuel Alito, for example, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that " ...if you start answering the easy questions you are going to be sliding down the ski run into the hard questions, and that's what I'm not so happy to do." Well, hell, judge, who is? The only surprising thing about this statement is the use of an athletic metaphor by Alito, who looks like he'd faint dead away from heat stroke if he ever actually stepped outside.
The new gold standard, though, in what I like to call tryophobia may be the imaginative stand taken this week by the Philadelphia police, a department known for thinking outside the box. Faced with a steeply accelerating murder rate, the Philadelphia PD took a look at the statistics and realized that, well, it could go out and patrol the streets and lock up bad guys and generally do the retail work of big-city policing, but that's just too hard, and it's cold outside, and those guys are always so cranky when you try to slap the iron on 'em. So what they've elected to do instead is -- and you really have to admire the cups-and-balls-like dexterity of the misdirection -- tell the public that murder is good. This isn't precisely the way they're arguing the case, of course. Instead, they're putting out word through the almost unbelievably credulous pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer that "More than 70 percent of those killed last year had been arrested at least once, according to police statistics." Some, the Inky goes on to note with a scandalized quiver in its voice, were even "hard-core street thugs." Mercy! So look at it this way, the Philadelphia PD seems to be saying: It's technically true that you can't hear yourself think for the ringing of gunfire in the streets, and some nights you actually have to kick the spent shell casings out of your way to clear a path to the 7-11. But hey, look at the bright side! Most of these people are criminals! "It's bad guys on bad guys," Chief Inspector Joseph Fox told the Inquirer. Which makes the city's murder binge -- well, downright Darwinian! It's inspiring, in a way!
It's hard not to respect the ingenuity of this approach. In one stroke it re-frames the debate and disarms critics. ("Oh, so what are you, pro-criminal or something?") And it offers a sterling example for those in search of a societally acceptable approach to laziness: Frame it in terms of a larger good. If your boss bitches you out for being late, tell him that you've put yourself on flextime. Hell, you're showing initiative! And what is he, some ozone-happy friend of the oil companies who thinks everybody ought to sit in traffic stinking up God's green earth with their greenhouse gases? What does he, hate the earth or something? If your mother complains that you never call her, shake your head as if pained and tell her that you're just doing your bit to keep the nation's overtaxed phone system free for first responders. What is she, anti-fireman? Does she hate firemen now, just like she hates America?
I could cite other examples, but that would take effort.
Gosh, what would advice columnists do without pop stars and flavor-of-the-week starlets? Left to our own devices, we'd have to come up with purely theoretical examples of bad behavior. And those always pale next to the gossamer glowiness of a case study like Lindsay Lohan, who is reported by AP to be "appalled" at a Vanity Fair cover story in which she admits to a bout with bulimia.
The Vanity Fair cover story has become a sort of pseudo-confessional in which people like Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie pretend to exorcise their personal demons, or at least those personal demons that pass the scrutiny of high-priced flacks and handlers. It is to print what the day-after stint on Jay Leno's couch is to television -- fake catharsis and real publicity in one grand, symbiotic sweep of cynical self-interest. So it seems a tad squirrelly of Lohan to claim now that the magazine misrepresented her words. (For the record, VF "stands by its story," a formulation that in other times was used to shore up journalism like Woodstein's reporting on Watergate and the New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers. Times, it seems worth noting, have changed.) More than that, though, it seems like a violation of the seamy deal that underlies these stories, the implicit contract that trades a tightly-controlled simulacrum of emotional nakedness for a free ride on the nation's newsstands and morning TV shows. Put simply: You can't have it both ways, honey. You can't pimp your problems to the glossies and then claim to be shocked, shocked when they put them on the street. And so to today's manners lesson: When you make your deal with the Devil, own it. It's unattractive to turn up at the Devil's doorstep a few days later claiming that you didn't know he was the Dark Ruler of, like, the whole underworld.
Still, Lohan and her team may not have completely lost their minds. When they decided to disavow the bulimia part of the story, they at least did it in a way that's consistent with the cash economy of Hollywood fame. They issued a statement to that well-known bulwark of truth and rigor, Teen People. The beat goes on.
The webmaster of this site (my typist and flunky, Bill Barol) has persuaded me to open posts for comments and trackbacks, whatever those are. Mr. Irresponsible isn't sure this is a good idea, but is told reader comments are an important part of the ongoing dialogue that is at the heart of weblogging. Ongoing or otherwise, dialogue strikes me as an overrated idea. You know what I like? That's right: Monologue. One person exercising his right to yammer on, while others exercise their right to ignore him if they so choose. So let's call this an experiment, and keep in mind that I will delete comments that are libelous, defamatory, profane or constitute hatespeak. As always, I reserve those prerogatives for myself.
Say, here's one of those slight shifts in the Zeitgeist you can miss if you're not paying attention: Dying is no longer the worst thing that can happen to you. The new worst thing that can happen to you is dying and having it covered by Reuters.
Consider the wire service's sendoff to Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai, who died earlier today:
At which a reasonably sympathetic reader can only shudder: Yow, tough room. Keep in mind that Maktoum, the piece's putative subject and until Wednesday the maximum ruler of, like, a whole country, is the one simply tagged as "Brother." This is more or less the posthumous equivalent of being billed as "Man #2" on "CSI." The editors, meanwhile, just go all twittery over the dreamy smile of Maktoum's younger successor, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, whom they breathlessly ID as not only the smartest kid in the room but a "world renowned racehorse breeder" besides. What, did they run out of room before they could get to "Mideast Ballroom Dancing Champion" and "Six-Time Winner of the Dubai Hilton Omar Sharif Lookalike Contest"? The new boss is described in the lede as "the man who transformed Dubai from a dusty Gulf city into a glitzy metropolis"; the unfortunate late Maktoum is filed away as "his elder brother." You can practically hear the Reuters staff brushing their palms clean in a dismissive "All done" gesture, then resting their swoony heads in their hands as they gaze adoringly on the new guy's head shot. ("To all the fellas and gals at Reuters... Thanx for the leg up! SWAK, Rashi".)
Mr. Irresponsible knows nothing about Dubai except that it's been called "the Foxwoods Casino of the UAE," and it seems to have a semi-official policy of sheltering disgraced pop stars. It may even be true that the late Maktoum was a placeholder in a well-cut burnous, while his younger brother really is all that and a bag of pita chips. But I hope when I go, I get better from Reuters than "Advice Columnist Dies; Replaced By Smarter, Funnier, Better-Looking Computer."
Mr. Irresponsible doesn’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. A New Year’s resolution is a dream of self-betterment, fed by the sugary bedtime snack of a wrongheaded belief in human perfectability. (Mr. Irresponsible also doesn’t believe in human perfectability. Gosh, there are so many things Mr. Irresponsible doesn’t believe in!) And yet, people continue year after year to scrawl their New Year’s wish lists, as if they were in the grip of some mass delusion. Which, of course, they are. It is the delusion that this year, of all years, we will live by the lights of what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. This year of all years we will eat less, read more, be kind to others. This year, this year.
The problem is, the well-meaning but scrawny better angels of our nature were long ago whomped into submission by the true angels of our nature -- huge, snappish, ill-tempered creatures who look something like the guy on “American Chopper.” Would you want to go up against the guy on “American Chopper”? Not me, and neither would the better angels of our nature. They checked out years ago. So what’s really fueling the annual ritual of the New Year’s resolution? Some atavistic impulse toward self-improvement, which in any sane world would have been filed away eons ago with other atavistic impulses, like the one that drove our monkey forebears to pick small insects out of our relatives’ coats and eat them.
I don’t really imagine that one advice columnist can break an entire nation of its addiction to a ritual this powerful. The best I can do is offer some tips for formulating your own New Year’s resolutions if you absolutely insist on making them, which, let’s face it, you do. My hope is that these tips will at least help you make more effective use of your resolution-making time by shattering unrealistic goals and lowering expectations. That’s my New Year’s gift to you -- the precious gift of lowered expectations. Take it and be reasonably well and sort of happy in 2006.
MR. IRRESPONSIBLE’S GUIDE TO NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS, IF YOU ABSOLUTELY INSIST ON MAKING THEM
1. Make them vaguely useful. The world does not need more French speakers. The world needs more neurosurgeons.
2. Keep them short. A New Year’s resolution which is so verbose it needs to be written down and carried around in your wallet has absolutely no chance of being kept. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If your resolution is so long it needs to be spell-checked, it’s useless.
3. Don’t aim those things at me. Any resolution whose goal is altering the behavior of another person is doomed to failure. There is a simple reason for this: All attempts to alter the behavior of other people, whether formulated in early January or mid-summer, are doomed to failure. I’ll change when I’m good and ready, thank you. Go change yourself if you love changing things so much. You can start with that striped sweater. You know the one.
4. Keep them to yourself. If there’s ever been anything more deadly than a roomful of people boring each other stiff with their New Year’s resolutions, it would have to have been the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.
5. Have fun with them. Be creative. As long as you’re setting yourself an impossible task, why not embrace the very impossibility of it? Forget about resolving to quit smoking. A chimp can quit smoking. Instead, resolve to master time travel. That’ll give ‘em something to talk about at your next SmokEnders meeting. (Ed. Note: This is apparently the way the program actually spells its name. My resolution is to procure them the extra “e” they apparently were too jittery to include.)
Good luck, and semi-happy New Year. (Remember: lowered expectations.) And remember too that if the burden of self-improvement proves too crushing -- and it will -- there is always someone who loves you just as you are.
Oh heavens, I just read that and saw what it looked like. It's not me. I just figure there has to be someone who loves you just as you are. I mean, it's The Law of Large Numbers, right? Then again, I was always pretty bad at math.
I've remarked elsewhere on the gauzy, energy-sapping air of unreality that prevails during the extended holiday period. This year-ending torpor, which reaches its peak in the week between Christmas and New Year's, falls particularly hard on office workers, who have to maintain at least the appearance of best business practices during a period when they'd really rather just down the last of the Snowman-shaped chocolates and stumble off to bed. So for new readers dropping in via the Fast Company weblog, a few tips on how to make the best of this sleepy off-week in the office.
1) This is an excellent week to steal office supplies. Efficient office managers, unwilling to lose any budget dollars left unspent in the last few weeks of the year, will have laid in a princely stock of legal pads, pens and those nice rubbery desk blotters. Now go nuts! Fill a pillowcase like St. Nick himself with Swingline staplers and multicolored Post-Its. Don't worry about getting them out past the drowsy security guard, who hates your employer even more than you do. In fact, brighten his day with a broad, larcenous wink as you roll the boss's personal copier out to your car. He'll appreciate the personal greeting, which is more than the boss himself ever gave him.
2) If your company was kind enough to give you a Christmas gift, use the corporate T1 connection to list it for sale on eBay. The lightning-quick upload of your descriptive text will enable you to beat the rush, and is sure to help you secure top dollar for your faux-crystal desk clock or motivational paperweight. (And remember: It is not actually your attitude that determines your altitude. It is much more accurate to say, as my friends at Despair.com do, that "Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now.")
3) Finally, take advantage of the relative quiet and isolation to gather dirt on your co-workers. In a nice coincidence, the ones you will most likely want to incriminate -- i.e., those higher up the ladder -- are also the ones who are most likely to be spending the week elsewhere. So look at this week as a chance to redress some of the cruel inequities of office life, like the one that traps you in an airless maze of cubicles while your boss takes his idiot son snowboarding in Vail. Thus emboldened, dig deep. Waste baskets and recycling bins are a rich, loamy source of incriminating data. And when your boss drifts back in sometime after the 3rd and demands to know why he's been summoned to Corporate for a dressing-down, and what the hell happened to his copier, anyway, just smile. And enjoy your Happy New Year, courtesy of Mr. Irresponsible.