it rings!


Yes, I'm going to talk about him. Patience.

Ahhhhh. The worst is over; the Great Bolus has passed through the editorial python. Seven pieces in two days – you can imagine how nice it feels to hit SEND on the last one, pick up the laptop, come down to the Strib cafeteria . . . and write. No wi-fi down here, so I’m cut off from the world of information.

In a newspaper building. I’m old enough to find that amusing.

Incidentally, this is the view from my spot at the cafe, as promised. This is what I look at.

It’s a raw day, more March than January; the day had a peculiar mien this noon, cloudy but unnaturally bright and clear. Gnat skipped off to the bus stop, but paused at the corner, waiting for me. (Another thing to note that will pass some day.) She’d spent all morning writing a book – lots of illustrations, carefully bound, hand-colored. Beats TV. Later she went up and read it to her Ponys. I have no idea what sort of dramas play out in Ponyville; she doesn’t tell me, and gets fiercely embarrassed when I ask. So I don’t. (Much.)

“What’s your favorite thing in the world,” she asked this morning.


“I knew you were going to say that.”

I suppose that’s a good thing, no?

Okay, time to write something else; have some screedblog topics lined up. (Moving it all over to iWeb to a real blog format soon, but that’s another story.) Or I could just sit here and listen to Eno and stare out the window for a while. Or both.

Later. I listened to Eno. Then went back to my desk. One of the editors dropped by with a list of pieces I might want to submit for a Pulitzer. That’s right! I’ve been nominated for a Pulitzer! Along with a ham sandwich a piece from the Chancre Falls Fistula-Gleaner on the peculiar nomenclature of “twice-baked potatoes.” (I mean, what do you get when you microwave them? Three-time baked potatoes? What’s up with that?) Anyone can be nominated. He handed me a print out of my story slugs and asked me to make a few recommendations. Apparently I wrote 174 stories for the paper last year. They want the top 12. Can’t wait for next year, when I’ll have to choose from 312.

Got Gnat from school, went to choir practice. We show up early so she can have a slice of pizza and stare goggle-eyed at the TV with the rest of the urchinry; I sit with the Moms and talk. Always fun. Endless parade of kids coming back to the table to ask for money for pizza or candy or soda or candy or soda thanks mom. Life always comes down to the church basement, in one form or another. And no subject goes undiscussed in a church basement; it’s just a matter of the tone and vocabulary.

Home. Worked on this and that. Listened to the radio, wrote the following. I suppose it would be better suited for the Screedblog, but it’s not that screedy, really; has more to do with my profession and its practitioners. Its dull and careful nature can be blamed on the fact that I was trying not to say anything I would really, really regret tomorrow.

Anyway. And so:

My professional title is often described as “humorist” – partly because I fought for that description, thinking it would make me heir to Perelman and Benchley, and partly because it’s a nice blanket under which to hide your journalistic deficiencies. Asking the humorist for actual facts is like asking the King’s Jester for serious policy advice.

Jester: Ho, m'lord - methinks the knave and the doxy hath sport when the bonny bodkin betakes himself to town, ho ho! (Impertinent thrusting of hips, waving of stick topped with a clown’s head)

King: What the hell art thou talking about, fool – oh. ‘S’truth. My footman and the Queen’s chamberpot custodian are having it on when the stable head goes to town. Trouble me not with –

Jester: But ah! (jangling of bells, foot-to-foot capering) What base wit doth they swappeth in the hay, that might with ill humour reach the ears of Gaul?

King: Prithee, shut your mince-gape. Flanders vexes me anew, and my men are arrayed crosswise with Saxonish obstinacy! Betake thy foppish mummery to a child’s bedchamber and beleaguer the wetnurse, that she may unholster a teat and beat you from the room with it. I have a kingdom to run.

It’s the same today; the pure humorist is not quite necessary when bombs ignite or buildings fall. That said, the job’s gotten better - you don’t get your head lopped off for continued impertinence. But if you do something as silly as put facts in your column they had best be, you know, factual; an endless series of corrections will get you busted down to the desk, where you edit deathless copy like the Senior Menu at the community center. (SATURDAY: Veal Smoothies, mashed oatmeal. Dessert: ice cold morphine suppositories) But that happens only if you get the facts wrong every week for a few years. There’s no penalty for intellectual errancy.

So we avoid facts in favor of ideas. What to do, then, when we want want to be taken seriously? At heart every jester wants the King’s ear as much as his smile. The best humorists can change tone effortlessly – Dave Barry, for example. No one expected he could be serious until he was, and then everyone realized that he was a writer first, a humorist second. Explains that. The hacks, the ones who have a small facility for punchlines, often confuse grim sonorous overwriting with Seriousness, and serve up cold pudding studded with maudlin sentiment and hectoring moralizing. Now and then, however, you come across a fellow who’s able to get his serious points across in his humorous style, and that’s rare. That’s tough. That’s talent.

And then there’s Joel Stein. I should note that I usually don’t write about other “humorists” because it’s such a subjective genre. My work, I’m sure, leaves many people with a permanent Buster Keaton expression. Some people tell me to read such and such, guaranteeing I will sunder my abdominal walls with convulsive mirth, but it often turns out to be that curious sort of humorous writing that’s never actually funny. It has the structure and appearance of humor, but it’s a honeycomb without honey. Having judged a few humorous writing contests, I can attest that this sort of stylist is common in the small-town weeklies. They don’t often make it up to the majors. It’s truly rare for a C-grade humorist to fail upwards nowadays, moving one from national gig to the other, making a series of sweaty attempts to connect with an audience that has no clear idea why this oddly charmless fellow has been given another gilt-edged soapbox.

But it happens.

Picking on an average Joel Stein column is like arranging your old Powerball tickets in chronological order; it’s something to do, but the effort seems misplaced. As far as I can tell he seems a nice enough fellow, certainly not full of boiling bile - rather, he has the certainty you often find in 17 year olds whose Social Studies teacher just assigned a Howard Zinn book for the class. He put his foot in it this week, however, and Mr. Hewitt’s flensing revealed a rather silly, callow fellow. Better to listen to it than read it; you get the full effect.

The column ends like this:

I know this is all easy to say for a guy who grew up with money, did well in school and hasn’t so much as served on jury duty for his country. But it’s really not that easy to say because anyone remotely affiliated with the military could easily beat me up, and I’m listed in the phone book.

I’m not advocating that we spit on returning veterans like they did after the Vietnam War, but we shouldn’t be celebrating people for doing something we don’t think was a good idea. All I’m asking is that we give our returning soldiers what they need: hospitals, pensions, mental health and a safe, immediate return. But, please, no parades.

Seriously, the traffic is insufferable.

Well, he’s guaranteed himself a big atta-boy from everyone who’s ever been inconvenienced by one of those interminable military processions that clog our streets every day. And he’s contradicted his entire column to boot – he has no problem with other people who support the war or the troops, no sir; he’s just Mr. Private Citizen who prefers to go his own lonely way. But NO PARADES, because Joel does not think there should be parades. In the spirit of compromise, he also declines to spit on soldiers, so you can’t say he’s completely unreasonable.

A tip for Mr. Stein from someone who also does the self-deprecation-via-self-aggrandizment schtick:

The goal is to make yourself appear endearingly clueless.

on Monday
on Tuesday


c. 2005 j. lileks