Can we do some real talk? Can I open up? Whatevs, it’s just 13 of us — I’m going for it. Let’s get to know each other.
I woke up to the news yesterday that The Huffington Post published an article of mine about North Korea. I sat up against the pillows and read through the piece on my iPad, savoring every charcoal word flowing down HuffPo’s uberfriendly interface. As if I had never read it before, or it was an article written by someone else I’m sort of friends with, someone who’s a “writer, comedian and entertainment strategist” and has been to North Korea and returned with some convictions and lifewisdom. But that dude is me. I’ve got a slightly blurry headshot next to a byline next to an article about the absurdity of North Korea. It’s the first world-affairs piece to include dick jokes overheard in a totalitarian regime. It’s probably also the first piece to ever include the term “dick jokes.” These are all firsts, is my point.
I posted it on Facebook to pretty nice fanfare — mostly from friends who already have an obligation to like me (or not enough honesty to tell me I’m a fool), but also from some really nice randoms, including a few people who heard the podcast we recorded in Pyongyang when we were high on juche and convinced that the hotel room was bugged and the North Korean stasi was going to bust in and reeducate us at any second.
And then I realized people were reading my North Korea work. Strangers. Random humans chose to click on my joke-addled editorial and decided to feel one way or another. I know this, because they left comments. And comments are interesting for us bloggers. (See what I did there? I’m one of them.) Blog comments are like overhearing two patrons critique your play on the way out of the theatre. Behind that autobotic alphanumeric handle is a person with a lethal combination: opinion and anonymity. That’s when the top-shelf haterade starts flowing.
(Side note: I just Googled the term ‘autobotic’ to see if it is in fact the adjective of ‘autobot’ and discovered that autobots are a type of Transformer. The top link on Google is an article about ‘autobotic asphyxiation,’ which is defined as the act of crossing “that thin, tremulous line separating a passionate hobby from an unhealthy obsession.” Leave it to Transformers fans to consider semi-sentient mechanical hermaphrodites “a passionate hobby.” I’m not a doctor, but I think that Transformers are an unhealthy obsession by definition. Accidentally stumbling into Michael Bay’s wet dream after an evening of heavy drinking – forgivable. Dressing up as a decepticon for the midnight premiere of Transformers VIII: Lethal Warranty – disturbing.)
(Side note 2: I just looked up Transformers on IMDB and found this in the Goofs section:
During the battle in the city Captain Lennox picks up an Aprilia RSV-Mille. The the soundtrack reveals the high-pitch whine of a high-revving four-cylinder. In actual fact the Aprilia is a V-Twin which would produce more of a low, thumping, two-cylinder sound.
Because those are the choices that really ruined the film for me — not the fact that intergalactic American-made vehicles with an identity crisis need a boy with Terrett’s and his preposterously hot girlfriend to help them save the universe. It was the engine sounds that ruined it. If only Michael Bay had gotten the low, thumping grunt of a motorcycle right, this would have been a cinematic masterpiece.)
Anyway, the haterade on my Huffington Post article was excellent. One person left me the lyrics to the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke” in response (which I assume is a poetic way to tell me I’m hilarious, though to be fair I don’t really get 70′s music) and another referred to his short wife as a counterpoint to my observation that Kim Jong Il wore heels to appear taller.
So it’s not top-shelf haterade, really — more of a bottom-shelf mixed drink with an umbrella and some punch to it — but enough to make me realize that people actually disagree with me and/or do not care for my jokes. And that’s cool. That makes me feel alive.
Then, at dinner tonight, I received an email that straight-up moved me.
Back in undergrad, I had a professor I truly enjoyed. He taught me Shakespeare and got me obsessed with the second tetralogy. I loved this guy. He used to critique my work like a peer (which I wasn’t) and weave Falstaff, Lincoln and the Beats into his lectures without a hint of professorial douchebaggery. I took his arguments seriously. I savored his seminars. And when I traded the Bard for Excel and became a management consultant, he wished me the best of luck and really meant it.
His name popped up in my inbox with the following note:
Excellent piece. I feel the spirit of Hitchens hovering near.
I like it.
I was overwhelmed, like a dame in a film noir. Because that note is heavy.
Christopher Hitchens is my favorite essayist of all time. He’s an inspiration. I have no words to describe how fulfilled and fulfilling his writing is. When he died I spent the evening in a sad daze contemplating the world without word games and Hitchslaps. When I read “Visit to a Small Planet,” which I began on the plane from Pyongyang to Beijing, I thought: I can’t write about North Korea. There’s no point. What else is there to say? He’s captured the insanity too well. He’s found all the right words.
Then I found out that Hitchens considered “Visit” his biggest failure. Because it failed to capture the insanity. And even then I thought: He’s right! He did fail! There’s really no way to explain what walking down the street in Pyongyang is like. But even his meandering, absorbing account reflected the mental life of someone who’s been there: in process, overstimulated, deliberative. All I could do was approximate the strokes of a genius, like a child tracing a cartoon.
The Huffington Post piece is better work than my early writing about North Korea. But it’s nowhere near Hitchens. For the writer’s spirit to be hovering anywhere near my words is a compliment that I won’t disregard but can’t quite accept. And if that wasn’t enough, the note ends with that simple “I like it” at the end — a brief, heartwarming nod from a talented mind named Stephen who generously schooled me.
I became a blogger today.