Friday, February 8, 2008
Retro-Journal: TMBG, UK, DC, and ABC, Late 1995
I heard from Andrea and Howard Rich’s employee Chris Whitten that correspondent John Stossel (whose 1989 20/20 segment about deregulation called “Relaxing the Rules” had helped confirm my coalescing libertarian views) had shown up at one of Victor Niederhoffer’s monthly “Junto” political discussion meetings and said he was looking for new staffers to work for him at ABC News. I applied to work there, two years of writing ads for Kaplan having grown a bit dull. Stossel had seen my articles for Reason (a gig I had pursued at the suggestion of the Institute for Humane Studies’ Marty Zupan and had been assigned to by then-editor Virginia Postrel, having first learned of the Institute for Humane Studies back during college from my friend-since-kindergarten Paul Taylor). So all libertarian roads led me to Stossel, who hoped to have me start working at ABC in the fall of 1995 — and as it happened, Kaplan laid off half its marketing department, including me, halfway through 1995 (you only need just so many people to write and design ads that say “Take Kaplan and get a higher score” over and over again, so I’d foreseen this eventuality).
In between the two jobs, that meant, in effect, I got a full-length summer vacation for the first time in the four years since college — the perfect time, obviously, to plan one’s Star Trek novel. And I don’t just mean fan fiction. With the advice of friends Liz Braswell and Scott Shannon, who’ve worked for Star Trek’s spin-off publishing empire in different capacities, I had some actual plot outlines percolating, just in case the ABC gig didn’t work out. (And six years later, when I left ABC, I’d return to that idea during another vacation between gigs — but that vacation would also end with me getting a real job, at ACSH, instead of remaining immersed in a Deep Space Nine plot.)
One wonderful thing I did take with me from Kaplan was a fellow employee, who became my girlfriend and was, in her own way, as nerdy as I — a fact made clear on one of our early dates. On July 9, 1995, we saw They Might Be Giants in Prospect Park in Brooklyn for a mere $3 — just days after viewing Fourth of July fireworks together — and two out of three of her ex-boyfriends, also nerds, unexpectedly turned out to be at the concert as well, greeting us both with a minimum of awkwardness.
It was frankly less awkward than our weird Bastille Day visit to the “Fun Fair” on Roosevelt Island, that centrally-planned island in the river just east of Manhattan being a desolate and modernist Potemkin Village — home to an old insane asylum, a collapsing smallpox hospital, and many U.N. employees — even when not filled for a day with desperate carny-barkers. I’d mention the place’s strangeness and artificiality in a Reason article eleven years later, my first stab at writing about it, for New York Press, having been rejected in the mid-90s — but nothing goes to waste.
I was reminded of the effectiveness of the TMBG event as a catch-basin for local nerds just a few years ago when I had a similar experience at a screening of Muppet highlights in Brooklyn, at which I unexpectedly bumped into several people I knew — including one woman I’d dated, who was herself on a date. That time I was the nerd ex-boyfriend unexpectedly but quite effectively drawn in by a powerful nerd-filter.
Nerdy romance was ultimately doomed in the case of me and the Kaplan vet, with her moving to Indiana — and wanting children, unlike me. These two factors combined to form her short story published in Red Book, of all places, in which a mother and sad young son cope with the absence of the boy’s father, a story that I may, in retrospect, have had some influence upon.
Some other people with whom I shared milestones that year:
•My father turned fifty, and I have to say, that doesn’t seem very old to me now — nor very long ago.
•My diminutive and beautiful lawyer friend Alex Dickerson was the only person I knew besides me with enough sense to want to see Babe, the movie about the talking pig, before the Oscar nomination for Best Picture was announced, after which adults everywhere suddenly woke up to the fact it was awesome.
•Arch-conservative friend Jim Kalb — an unabashed traditionalist who questions the very idea of individual rationality — led a monthly or so Tuesday Night Traditionalists gathering (TNT — totally unrelated to the coincidental same-named Tuesday gatherings led by one of my more left-wing friends, Gersh Kuntzman, around the same time, at which the primary tradition under discussion was getting more beer). Kalb’s gatherings took place at a bar on the Lower West Side, and they helped to sharpen my ideas about tradition and innovation, stirred over the preceding few years by my encounters with paleoconservative thinking. Paleocon John Carney, now an occasional combatant in the Debates at Lolita Bar I host, was another participant and a friend of short-term Stossel underling Brian Taylor from their days as political trouble-makers together at SUNY Binghamton.
Kalb made me realize my innocent and naive philosophical youth was ending — and my respect for tradition growing — when he pointed out the possible cultural hollowness of my enthusiasm for the cable access show Concrete TV, consisting as it did of fast, well-edited video montages of martial arts, Godzilla, action-movie car crashes, machine gun battles, and vintage stripper reals, often set to speed metal. In retrospect, I also realize how shallow he probably thought I sounded after one TNT gathering when I said I was basically “a New Wave guy at heart,” and he somewhat passive-aggressively asked what had become of New Wave a decade on, the Tory bastard. But I’ll unite his thinking and Debbie Harry’s yet whether he likes it or not, just you watch.
I still recall telling Liza once, as we walked along the street, that if I could fulfill my greatest ambition, it would be to somehow heal the rift in Western civilization wrought by the eighteenth-century schism between traditionalists and innovators/progressives, still echoing today in the battles between right and left — and echoing in the book/articles-writing plan I’d formulate two years later (but more on that in three weeks).
•My friend Reid Mihalko was on Maury Povich’s show on July 26 that year, making the case for Austrian-Americans as the sexiest ethnic group in a “discussion” about that topic among several good-looking people. In a completely faked accent (fully encouraged by the show’s producers), Reid claimed at one point that Austrian men are strong like Austrian coffee “und” thick like Austrian strudel.
•I made the first of three trips, as an adult, to London, this time accompanied by Scott Nybakken, both of us taking advantage of the opportunity to stay with another former Kaplan employee, globe-trotting future “quantum healer” Sangeeta Sahi.
•Let it not be thought that the travel benefits of my friendship with Scott flowed solely in his direction, though: he took me along that October to a Halloween costume party full of DC Comics employees, me garbed as the obscure but pivotal DC villain the Time Trapper — pivotal because he alone lives at the very end of time and has the power to reach back and alter the course of history, including his own multiple and contradictory origin stories, which feed into the same entropic end-point like streams into a single dark river. Editor Mike Carlin did not recognize my costume — and made me more disturbed for the integrity of the timestream than any scheme by the Time Trapper ever could when he answered one of my questions about Superman continuity with a vague and dismissive remark about how if Superman has long hair, the story’s probably in continuity. It was then that I knew that the timestream lacked a firm guiding hand — such as the one I would provide, were my secret ambitions to control the DC Universe ever to reach fruition!
The party also featured the lovely Jill Pope as Jackie O — and on the precious few occasions when I’ve bumped into her since then, I always feel like I just saw her at that party, now nearly thirteen years gone by — but always immediately accessible to the Time Trapper…
•I submitted a piece about the history of the Village Voice (complete with a reference to a real, honest-to-gosh, non-ironic headline from its early, genuinely Greenwich-Village-centric days in the late 50s that read “Cops Break Up Beatnik Bongo Party,” I kid you not) to the fledgling Weekly Standard, but John Podhoretz reluctantly and politely rejected the piece, so it ended up in a waning Spy Magazine of all places, while my fellow New York Press writer Daniel Radosh (a leftist and humor writer) ended up writing the Standard’s retrospective on the Voice — and there’s something very backwards about that, needless to say. (I’ve recently been told Podhoretz still remembers who I am, so he must have a memory like a bartender, for lack of a better metaphor.)
•My co-worker Debbie Stone (now Debbie Colloton) at ABC was an endless source of strange stories from her own life and an inspiration to do more with my own. A gung-ho conservative who converted to Catholicism while we were at ABC (again, I tend to like hybrids and converts of one sort or another), she was a fount of anecdotes about her days at the Dartmouth Review with the likes of Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham, not to mention her time with El Salvadoran military men, her lawyer sister Wendy, and countless alarmed motorists who do not share her somewhat anarchic, New Hampshire-hewn belief that all driving should be done at 100 miles per hour.
I jotted down a note at the very end of 1995 saying “life is great,” despite the small, decrepit former dressing-rooms that Debbie and I, as new Stossel recruits, were then using as offices on a little-used floor at ABC, full of rat poison, construction work, and asbestos removal efforts. At year’s end, Liza was visiting (between semesters) for nearly the last time, and I was still writing for New York Press for a bit longer and doing political monologues for WFUV radio, prior to getting a permanent contract at ABC (at which point I dropped all outside political activities, believe it or not). I awaited the early-1996 airing of the first Stossel special on which I’d worked, as a freelance researcher: The Trouble with Lawyers.