I know, I know, I’ve been AWOL a long time. Shoot me. No, seriously. I wouldn’t object. It’d be great to get shot, as long as it was quick and fatal, not somewhere like the shin, where you scream like a raccoon from the pain and don’t even die. Shot nice and quick by a firing squad, that’s the dream. When that redneck demanded capital punishment by firing squad in Utah, I was as jealous as I used to get reading about Hannibal and Forrest. Lucky bald-headed Aryan Brotherhood bastard: what a way to go! He suckered those Mormons all the way. Lethal injection, now that’s scary: die on a table with tubes going up your elbow? That’s too much like how I’m going to die for reals (and how you’ll die too, even if you don’t want to think about it). But getting shot in the heart—that’s making something of yourself. Be shot.
I was so close. Take this Michael Hastings guy. He’s the biggest thing in military reporting right now because he broke the supposedly big McChrystal mouth-off story for Rolling Stone. OK, it isn’t really that big a story; how do you think soldiers talk about the politicians they have to kowtow to, especially when they’re stranded in a bar with a reporter for a week thanks to that harmless volcanic ash cloud the EU made into a fake crisis? Naturally they’re going to bitch about the pols like soldiers have been doing since the Neanderthals learned to make noises with their mouths.
But what hurts is that I got interviewed by this same Michael Hastings guy way back when my book came out. I talked to him for hours about war, about Iraq, about Fresno, about Afghanistan and even about how all the coolsters in Manhattan laughed at his book about his girlfriend getting killed in Iraq. (Which to be fair he should’ve expected because he titled that book I Lost My Love in Baghdad, possibly the worst title ever until some studio cokehead came up with Knight and Day.)
We maybe didn’t bond—that’s not my field, like the Georgia slaves said to General Sherman’s torch squad—but we had I thought a pretty decent interview, and when it was over I had a long shower and groaned for a few hours remembering every stupid thing I’d said the way I always do after these interpersonal things, and went to sleep expecting to wake up with a story in Newsweek and a rating in Amazon books in something like three digits.
Instead—instead, because the Gods of War hate me worse than they hate Poland—instead I get a nice personal email from my new pal, buddy, Vulcan-mind-meld soulmate Michael Damn Hastings saying he’s just quit Newsweek. The bastard took the buyout and ran—straight to Rolling Stone and the biggest story (as far as the sucker mainstream press is concerned) since Tet.
Hastings’ blog: imagining the War Nerd while getting famous
I should’ve learned my lesson and left the mainstream jerks alone, but then the New York Times itself came calling. I kid you not, the NYT called me. I didn’t go looking for trouble; it seemed pretty obvious to me that Brecher was a bad match for the windbags who run the NYT’s Opinion Page. But I have the emails to prove it. Out of nowhere, I got an email from a guy who said his name was “Mark Lotto” inviting me to write an article for this series the NYT was running called “Summerscapes.” Yeah, that’s right, “Summerscapes.” Pretty pukesome name, I grant you, but the exposure would sell a lot of books, I figured, so I swallowed the vomit and agreed to write something.
Then I went online and actually read some of the unbelievably lousy stuff people had done for this “Summerscape” series.
What is wrong with people from the East Coast? See, reading all these “Summerscapes” articles was my first try at East-Coast print culture or whatever they call it, and I came away pretty sure those people left their brains on the subway sometime during Eisenhower’s first term. Every lousy article was about vacations in a cottage “at the lake” or “on the shore,” meaning somewhere on that pissant excuse for an ocean, the Atlantic. Digging clams on Cape Cod. I personally don’t believe that Cape Cod actually exists, and even if it does, like my grandma used to say, “There’s no need to dwell on it.”
Every June these geniuses write the same little essay about going to the cottage. 1500 words on unpacking the deck chairs and sweeping all last year’s sand out of your cottage. It helps if you can throw in some sappy family-dynamics thing from an after-school special about how this year was Grandpa’s 37th trip to the dear old lake and gosh darn it, he’s not as quick as he used to be sculling over the lawn bowls, but his spirit and love of life are as bright as a button in spite of it all.
It was like ninth-grade English, where they make you read stuff so awful that you start to think it must be your fault: “Duh…I must be missing something, the nuances or whatever, or maybe I don’t speak English after all.”
This was when I started seriously wondering if it was a prank. I mean, how likely is it that I’d get an offer from the NYT, especially from somebody named Mark Lotto?
“I’ll add some ethnic spice to your parent’s bland WASP-y summer home.”
But after I read more of these things online, I had to face the fact that they were just plain stupid. There was one that had me laughing out loud, which doesn’t happen every decade. It was a totally typical “back to the summer cottage on the lake” essay, but that wasn’t the funny part. The kink was that instead of being written by some three-name WASP from the Hamptons, this essay was by a gay Sri Lankan Tamil novelist named Selvadurai. He probably could’ve done something interesting about summer in Sri Lanka, like how anybody survives it for example, but nope, they had him do the classic “back to the lake” scenario, him and “my partner Andrew.” This is the first sentence, uncut, I swear to God: “Every year my partner Andrew and I go to Northern Ontario to open his family cottage.” The whole thing’s full of the same crap people were writing in their “What I Did on Summer Vacation” essays back in Teddy Roosevelt’s day:
“From the cottage garden, I could see Andrew going about the holiday home he had known since childhood, tidying up, taking down the curtains, cleaning the windows…When I went into the bedroom above the boathouse, I saw that the shelves were filled with the things of his past—magazines for teenagers, a tattered Scrabble game, yellowed paperback Daphne DuMaurier novels, a Mennonite quilt.”
Then the guy starts crosscutting between Andrew’s WASP cottage in Ontario and his family’s cottage on a lake in Sri Lanka. That one had crocodiles and Tamil-hating Sinhalese neighbors, of course, who burned it down eventually—the Sinhalese, I mean, not the crocs.
Scene #1: Two guys unfolding their L. L. Bean lawnchairs on a lake in Canada.
Scene #2: The Sri Lankan guy’s family relaxing by the lake in Sri Lanka, throwing chunks of curried goat to the crocs in the lake, watched by a sullen crowd of Sinhalese locals itching to tear their throats open. Ah, those glorious summer vacations back in ol’ Ceylon!
Scene #3: Ontario again, with the guppies having a chuckle about how the woodrats have made their little nest in last summer’s beach umbrella.
Scene #4: Sinhalese villagers whooping it up around the burning ruins of the Sri Lankan lake cottage, with the crocs doing a conga in the background. Oh, the humanity! Who could have expected that the Tamil-Sinhalese hate-fest would go so far as to disrespect personal property and the sacredness of the vacation home!
That was his whole schtick: quick cuts between his boyfriend’s cottage in Neil Young country and his family’s torched place in the Sinhalese backwoods. That was his whole take on the amazing war in Sri Lanka. He had a ringside seat and all he can do is whine about how the Sinhalese burned up HIS little boathouse bedroom with the novels by Daphne Whoever.
Some gimmicks are so simple it takes a long time to see them. Like it took me a long time, looking over this ridiculous article, to realize that it’s just a way for NYT readers up in the suburbs of NYC to feel even smugger, if that’s humanly possible, about their little lake cottages by comparing their neat, safe little boathouses with the burned ruins this whiner from Ceylon is going on about. It must make them feel good the way going to Ethiopian restaurants in the eighties, when there was that huge famine in Ethiopia, made the yuppies feel: “Haw, I bet those poor suckers in Addis Ababa wouldn’t mind a bite of this glop on this Styrofoam bread, even if it does taste like crockpot chicken run through a blender and served on bubble wrap!”
You’ll notice, by the way, that all those Ethiopian restaurants closed down after the famine “ebbed,” as they say, in Ethiopia, meaning the locals got two handfuls of UN weight-gain mix, torn from the poor suburban steroid kids who were clamoring for it, instead of just one. Once people in Seattle found out the people who cooked this glop weren’t starving anymore, they realized, “Hey, this tastes like diarrhea!’ and went on to sushi, which was roughly like replacing McClellan with Ambrose Burnside.
It just doesn’t taste as good without a little salsa picante on it, as in somebody else having their cabin burnt down while yours is appreciating at a steady ten percent per annum. Which is why they invited Mister Gay Sri Lanka to do a column. Absolutely the lamest strategy since MacMahon in 1870: hire a “visible minority” squared—gay and brown—and then you can just crank out the same crap. It’s the print version of that Damon Wayans sitcom My Wife and Kids, where the gimmick is they do all the gags Leave It to Beaver thought were too corny for the 1950s and get away with it cuz the main characters are all black! It’s even got the same sadism, come to think of it: make the black folk suffer through a ten-year run of Damon’s stage kids’ hijinks before you let the poor suckers know that sitcom family stuff was never funny even the first time around.
But even though these “Summerscape” articles made me sick to read I wrote one when they asked me. I’m an American, damn it, and I’m supposed to try to make it. So I swallowed the bile and did my best, wrote a short article on summer in Bakersfield the way I remember it: getting beat to a pulp by some jocks from my high school when they saw me chopping weeds by the road on my summer job with the city weed-cull program. I talked about how bummed all my relatives were that I didn’t fight back, how they thought it was a sign of the decline of the white race, or maybe the Okie race; on my mother’s side of the family they don’t make much of a distinction—and how it made me sort of a fatalist in military matters. I called it “The Military History of Bakersfield,” went on about how the same jocks who stomped me faded into obscurity like the Hittites, superseded by later empires, in this case the Mexicans, who had a higher birthrate and less to lose, and then the Salvadorans, possibly the only empire since the Mayans (same people, come to think of it) to intimidate enemies with armies of soldiers less than five feet tall.
I thought it was funny and my pal at the NYT, Mark Lotto, actually agreed, sent me a contract and a bunch of praise and told me it’d be coming out soon. I should live so long, as they say in New York. First they told me that the summer was over and it’d be published next summer. Next summer this NYT intern named “Honor Jones”—another name that made me think it was all a big prank—sent me a couple dozen emails saying my article was going to come out any day now, just be patient—until she finally admitted that her editor David Silbey didn’t like it. Silbey is a mainstream war guy, more like a war dweeb than a war nerd, so no wonder he nixed my downer of a story about getting beat on without a happy ending or movie revenge. Of course he was going to kill the story: we’re in the same business only I’m about a thousand times better at it than that Gerbers-baby-food version of a war historian. But the capper: the NYT didn’t even send me the kill fee they promised. I didn’t get a penny for sucking up to the bastards.
That’s the problem with selling out, in my experience: you cover yourself with stinking shit and then don’t even get paid. Even as a kid in Bible study I knew Judas was a fool. He was never going to get those thirty pieces of silver. When he went to collect they laughed in his stupid red face. That’s why he hung himself. That was always my take on the New Testament, and you’d think I’d have applied it to this going-mainstream program, known better. But the truth is nobody ever knows better.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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