Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tonga

Monday, March 14, 2005

A Grand and Pointless Column

I was busy this weekend, and missed the Op/Ed event of the ...uh... Saturday. Every other blogger in the blogosphere was there--and has had something fun to say. The event was David Brooks's regular New York Times column, which set the standard for "insipid". In "Saturday Night Lite" Brooks revealed that (while visiting New Orleans) he consciously and delightedly indulged in a deadly sin, and then had second thoughts about how lethal it might actually be.

The sin was Gluttony (he had earlier gambled, though, for a Bill Bennett touch, and later in the column acknowledged at least curiosity toward Lust); his second thought occurred when he fretted over whether the after-dinner coffee was decaffeinated.

The waiter thrust a ladle into the inferno and lifted up long, dripping streams of blue fire, hoisting the burning liquid into hypnotizing, showy cascades. He poured out a circle of flame onto the tablecloth in front of us. It was a lavish pyre of molten, inebriating java and then, when he swung around to where I was sitting, I turned and asked the climactic question:

"Is it decaf?"

I was sitting there in an orgy of excess. My head was fogged with wine, bourbon, conversation and a couple of hours at the craps tables at Harrah's, but strong is the power of the zeitgeist. So I did what all of us middle-aged Prufrocks do when coffee follows dinner. I asked, "Is it decaf?"

Poor Brooks lamented that his wanton excess was spoiled, not that he had overindulged. His was no Prufrock moment-- it was pure Ned Flanders.
If 18,000 calories and four kinds of booze didn't kill me, there was no way a smidgen of caffeine was going to keep me awake.

And yet we live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code.

Does he think that there is some wild heroic glory in taking really stupid-- but minimal and meaningless-- risks? Nowhere in his column could I find a suggestion that he can think outside his upper-middle-class hell to consider that real people take real risks every day. Perhaps this was not really a Ned Flanders moment after all; it looks more and more like a Marie Antoinette minute. [By the way, Mr. Brooks, you should ask your travel agent to book your next visit to the French Quarter at the St. Ann/Marie Antoinette Hotel.] Yes, I think that Marie Antoinette is the key here, but an envious Marie, one who thinks that the poor are eating the cake that her South Beach diet forbids.

Brooks refused to take personal responsibility for his plight, blaming in turn "the people at the top for setting the tone", "parents", "titans of corporatism", and "the arbiters of virtue".
I blame the people at the top for setting the tone. We live in an age in which the White House is staffed by tidy-desked, white-shirted, crisply coiffed StairMaster addicts, whose idea of sensual decadence is an extra pinch of NutraSweet in the lunchtime iced tea. We've got a president whose personal philosophy is: freedom is God's gift to humanity, but bedtime is 9:30.

This isn't the empire of an American Caesar; it's the empire of faux Caesar salad.

I blame parents. Kids are raised amid foam corner protectors and schooled amid flame-retardant construction paper. They're drugged with a vast array of pharmaceuticals to keep them from becoming interesting. They go from adult-structured tutorials to highly padded sports practices to career-counselor-approved summer internships.

I blame the titans of corporatism. Fitness is now the prime marker of capitalist machismo, so the higher reaches of corporate America are filled with tightly calved Blackberries in human form, who believe that extremism in pursuit of moderation is no vice. They have become such obsessive time-maximizers that all evening, in what used to be known as social life, they keep an eye on the need to be up, fit and early, for the next day's productivity marathon.

I blame the arbiters of virtue. Sometime over the past generation we became less likely to object to something because it is immoral and more likely to object to something because it is unhealthy or unsafe. So smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments, and the word "sinful" is most commonly associated with chocolate.

Now we lead lives in which everything is a pallid parody of itself: fat-free yogurt, salt-free pretzels, milk-free milk. Gone, at least among the responsible professional class, is the exuberance of the feast. Gone is the grand and pointless gesture.

"Gone is the grand and pointless gesture." No, it's not. I bet that the Times pays Brooks at least a grand per pointless column. You can decide whether Brooks or the Times gets credit for the gesture.

Give Brooks credit for finding a way to pull T.S. Eliot into his column, although such literary references sprinkled throughout his writings. I think that I may have detected traces of "The Wasteland" in Bobos in Paradise.

So, although Busy, Busy, Busy already covered "Saturday Night Lite", I thought that a shorter version of "The Lovesong of J. David Brooks" was in order:

I grow dumb… I grow dumb…
I shall leave the readers of these columns numb.

Shall I sit on my behind? Do I dare a thought-filled reach?
I shall wear SPF 30, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the Malkin whining, bitch to bitch.

I do not think that I can whine like she.

He comes pretty close.