"Desperate, Gawping Need to be Loved"
This, really, is James's problem. Not his bad writing, not his confused politics, not his ridiculous carping on and on and on about every minimum-wage worker he runs into, not even his inexplicable distaste for the kind of average, short, homely, rapidly-aging human type most of us are (and James certainly is).
Backstory: I started reading Lileks.com because of a tip from another journalist in a newsgroup: Check out The Institute of Official Cheer!
I did. It was hilarious, in parts; never less than mildly amusing.
Oh goody, I thought. This is a funny guy! His online journal must be funny too. Lessee...
No. Wrong. Big mistake.
And worse, after reading several pages of the Bleat, I had to go back and reconsider the other stuff. Just as we were all forced to reevaluate "The Sixth Sense" after seeing the abysmal "Unbreakable", I wondered if laughing at The Art of Art Frahm and The Dorcus Collection still made sense.
Good news: The Institute's material is still funny. But now I see the mean-spirited, self-absorbed, unoriginal, imitative qualities there too.
Not to mention the familiar obsessions. James is like the fabled hedgehog: if not just one, he knows only a few things, and he's determined to use them on every occasion. The same topics appear again and again; in fact, apart from the political bits, what else is there to the Bleat than...
(1) People Who Annoy Me (Almost Everyone);
(2) Things That Annoy Me (Almost Everything I Don't Currently Have and Don't Want Yet);
(3) Things That Are Perfect (Everything I Have Or Might Have One Day);
(4) People Who Love Me...and here we come to the problem.
I wrote this to my husband back in April 2002:
'OK, I see it now. Lileks is one of the most unabashedly self-absorbed navel gazers I've come across lately. Today's Bleat starts with musings about being childless vs. childfree, not such bad stuff if you discount his usual paranoia and need to insult anyone who disagrees with him. It ends with this:
But. Those of you who think that kids will come along some day, and wonder what that might mean, how it will change things - I can only note a moment today in the Mall of America with my Gnat. We always end our trips to the Mall with a cookie. A rare treat, since we don't have cookies at home. (Jell-o Fat Free Pudding for Daddy, yes, but that's another story.) We sat on a bridge over a stream as we snacked, alone in a leafy glade in the biggest mall in America. Gnat beamed as she chewed her ration.
"Num," she said, grinning. "Nice. Cookie nice." Pause, chew, swallow, smile. "Daddy nice."
I have never been happier in my life, or loved anyone more.
'Hmmm. Sure, all parents have that time of being the unconditionally loved, adored, and admired center of their child's life. I remember it well. I also understood, even at the time, that it was a passing thing, and that Andrew could not help feeling that way about me. I enjoyed it and I certainly loved him to bits right back, but "never been happier in my life"? Nonsense. Darby [my dog] unconditionally loves and adores me now, as far as that goes, and it's pleasurable and a little disconcerting too, but it's not "never been happier" material either.
'As for "never loved anyone more"? I wonder what Mrs. Lileks thinks when she reads that. Maybe she's also in the same infatuated state so it doesn't bother her.'
Mike Finley, who knew and thought he was friends with Lileks, nailed it when he called this sort of retchmaking stuff the "I Love My Poms" bumpersticker syndrome:
Meaning Pomeranians, little dogs. Like a person deserves credit for loving his dog. Like there is something about dogs that renders them emotionally distant and inexpressive, and that someone who could bridge that gap is advanced in the ways of love.
James, in caricature, is like the guy who loves his Poms and wants the world to know. But I guess we're all a bit of that. But James is exceptional.
Like it's such a challenge to love your little girl, you must be one heck of a human being to manage it. Like it's so rare for a toddler to beam at her daddy, her doing so to James means he can't possibly be your average ordinary father.
Now, when Gnat is 15 years old, and she's screaming "I hate you! You never let me do anything! You don't trust me! You've ruined my life, you motherfucker!"...well, then I'll be the first with kudos if James describes that in his 2013 Bleat and still says "I have never been happier or loved anyone more."
Am I making my point here? My point is that it's fuckin' easy to adore a little being who adores you right back, and whose small rebellions (dog growling when you take his ball away, kid fussing when you tell her "No" in the store) don't do anything to your self-esteem.
The hard part is loving her and being happy about her when that kid isn't so little or so cute or so unthreatening any more. When her resistance and her dislike - which is going to come, James - make you wonder how right she is and if you really are a motherfucker after all.
Of course this doesn't ever happen with dogs, who are permanently arrested in puppyhood. That's why people who decide to have dogs instead of children aren't missing out on the best part of alpha-adulthood.
Did having a child change my life? Yeah, you bet. Not least because it allowed me to know a nice, funny, intelligent, good and in many ways delightful person. I take very little credit for any of that. I only take a small amount of credit for still having him in my life as a friend and ally as well as a son.
But having a child didn't make me "happy", "happier than ever before". I think that's too much to ask a child to do for you. Too big a burden to lay on anyone's shoulders.
And I don't rank the times I've felt love, for him or anyone else. Isn't every moment of intense love, like every orgasm, the best, the most, yet unique? I often feel visceral, powerful, almost physical love for my husband, but it doesn't enter my head to label it "I've never loved anyone more."
Why would you do that anyway? And in public? For the same reason you put an "I Love My Poms" bumpersticker on your car, of course.
Like the man said:
I don't hate James Lileks. I do however like making fun of his pretensions, and of the warblogger-tailored neocon agenda in his writing, which is roughly as transparent as his desperate, gawping need to be loved.
Other than that, I'm sure he's a standup fellow.