First, to all the people who have supported this blog financially since August, while it lay fallow: Thank you. I will now write regularly, though I don’t know yet what you’re going to get, beyond un-topical navel-gazing and karma-dumping. But your faith and investments in me are not unfelt, and deserve something in return. This will have to do for now. As another overrated white guy once wrote, “Even if I must pawn my syringe, I will see to it that this wretched debt is paid.”
For months, since the implosion of my last best career intentions, I’ve fielded kind words and offers of work and delivered on next to none of them, putting my entire life on hold to produce a proposal for a book I don’t feel capable of writing. In sussing out the story (and securing a book deal), I thought, I would get my mojo and sense of purpose back. It hasn’t worked out that way. I’m in a deeper rut than I’ve been willing to admit, and unsure where to go from here.
The story is that my grandfather, a man I barely knew but who looms large in my family’s eccentric mythology, was not just a popular gunsmith outside Woodstock, not merely a friend and counselor to curators at the Met and the West Point museum; he was also a master forger of antique American firearms.
Literally hundreds of Ken Weinstein’s “Hurley Mountain Specials” are out there — fabricated 19th century Colts, mostly, but plenty of other pistols and long guns as well. The most notable of these — though he was more of an assistant or midwife on it, leaving the dirtiest and wettest work to an American-born Italian partner — is the only known example of the Belton “repeating” flintlock, an 18th century firearm that Joseph Belton, a fast-talking, eccentric colonial inventor unsuccessfully offered to the Continental Congress as a revolutionary weapon for a revolutionary cause. The Belton is now something of a missing link in gun activists’ bully defense of the Second Amendment: If the Founding Fathers knew of Bolton’s gun, with its rudimentary superimposed charges, then they would be unsurprised — and untroubled - by semiautomatic “assault weapons” and full-automatic machine guns.
Though I’ve uncovered a few other interesting connections and revelations, I still know very little about the Belton business, or my grandfather’s other adventures in forgery. I don’t know how he did it.
I don’t know how anybody in my bloodline achieves anything; my own life is a mass of incompletion, inertia, and regret. I was ambitious once, perhaps ambitious enough even to be criminal, but mostly I just hit plateaus and yelled at everybody else unlucky enough to be there with me.
Now I will digress into the self-pitying stuff that’s been blocking me up, that I’ve been loath to discuss openly. That’s chiefly out of respect for other people’s privacy, as well as to safeguard whatever semblance of normalcy or professionalism still attends my “brand.” None of that is worth much to me now. It’s certainly not worth the burden of carrying this shit on my heart alone.
I joined the Navy out of idealism, then lasted two years. I went to Columbia, got lonely, and dropped out for a year before my already considerable debt spurred me to finish. After 9/11, I entered the reserves and lasted another two years. I married someone I shouldn’t have, and with her encouragement, went into a career that I shouldn’t have — journalism, after another expensive year of grad school. One month into my first job, on the copy desk of the Wall Street Journal, I was laid off. Two months later, the Great Recession was underway. I was so fucked up at the time, I once left a party at a j-school professor’s house drunk with a pilfered copy of her new book, then lacked the money to repay her for it.
I went to Iraq as a contractor, then departed early when my marriage was at stake, leaving tens of thousands of dollars on the table. I took a job at a magazine for residential mortgage default servicers at the height of the housing bust and lasted a few months, before my refusal to help choreograph a musical number for the servicers’ annual bacchanal did me in. I worked a $30,000 a year magazine job in San Francisco and covered the rent with freelance while my wife, depressed, failed to land a job and stayed in bed in our dilapidated studio most days. We moved so she could finish her PhD, and I started a doctoral program of my own; neither of us has ever completed those degrees.
I took a reporting job in Washington at the height of a presidential race and the toxicity of the city and the politics and our poverty and our overpriced basement apartment choked me, until the winter night that our heating failed and a toilet flooded the entire place with hundreds of gallons of sewage, leaving the Red Cross to rescue us in the middle of the night, which meant depositing us in a Comfort Inn in College Park, Maryland, where we both had nervous breakdowns as our two-month-old gurgled on the bed. When our landlords returned from overseas, they refused to give us our security deposit back.
I supported us, and then our child, singlehandedly for eight years, in moves to Philadelphia, New York, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco, Tallahassee, Washington, Fort Lauderdale again, Tallahassee again. I stayed married far longer than I should have, because I already felt like a quitter in every other aspect of life and was determined not to quit on my wife or son. So my wife and I stayed put, drank heavily, and abused each other instead.
The week after I finally asked her for a divorce, she got the first salaried job she’d held since before we met. She was going to be a journalist now. The year after we finalized our divorce — which took extra time and money, after it turned out she’d told a radically different story to our mediator about every aspect of our relationship and our terms of parting — I lost a prestigious, stressful journalism job and took a management position at another company, which later purchased my previous employer. Somewhere in there, my previous employer hired my ex-wife. She deserves it, though; she’s brilliant.
Then I was let go from my job by an executive mentor, for badly dropping the ball on one of several projects I’d headed a few months earlier, while sick, and between an out-of-town leadership seminar and a hurricane bearing down on my family. I was also cut loose right before our newsroom held its vote to unionize — and right after, as a reluctant organizer for our office, I’d publicly corrected two company Vice Presidents when they tried to give bum information on unions to the staff at an all-hands meeting. I asked the union if I had a case. Not really, they said.
Then Donald Trump was elected president.
Then my high school wrestling coach was murdered in Parkland.
Then I took a job that seemed fun; then that site’s wealthy owner, who’d promoted me to editor in chief only weeks before, began to obsess over me and my politics, then he ordered me to do something that was contrary to all my professional training, and I quit. Several executives shortly left the company, too. Nevertheless, my brand became “leaves abruptly.”
Throughout all this, there were angry emails, tweets and calls from people who disliked my writing and my politics, told me to kill myself, threatened my child, and averred that I was worthless. Un-American. Part of a vast media elite conspiracy.
I am 40 years old. I have $126,000 in student debt, costly preparation for work in an industry I no longer have a taste for. I have no taste for anything now. I am A Real Loser, a half-time father who spends the rest of his time drinking, smoking, and pitying, and mostly keeping quiet about it, because I am an educated mediocre white man, precisely the type of guy who fucks everybody else’s lives up; everyone is suffering now, and I feel like an asshole boring people with my own. I don’t keep many friends in real life. Being a steppenwolf has never really worked for me, but I’ve never been good at the alternatives.
I used to have serious faith in myself and in the world. But I feel now that much of my life has been defined by an inability to deal with people and institutions who exploit or ignore faith — in other words, most people and institutions. My reporting, my employment, my world all seemed to revolve around bad, self-loving actors. And so I lost faith, the way a lizard loses its tail when pursued by a predator. Only faith doesn’t grow back of its own accord.
I am offered work, often good work, and I can’t deliver on it because I can’t see the use of it, any of it. I think a lot about other men who have midlife crises, the men I see cruising the beach in convertible sports cars and cruising Tinder at a douchey bar on Las Olas. I wonder if I am like them when I’m like this — whether, if more of the breaks had gone my way, I would still hurt like them.
On the plus side, I now feel no compunctions about applying for jobs as a disabled person. “Major depression” always sounded like a fake disability to me as a young person, a quick excuse for the lazy, dramatic and shiftless, whose ranks clearly included me. But if I could have willed the failings out of me, I would have by now. My last counselor agreed. I currently lack insurance, so it may take some time to get a second opinion.
When I was in high school, the mother of one of my friends died suddenly, unexpectedly. We were told she’d tripped over an open dishwasher and fallen on it, impaling herself. The service was in a Catholic Church. I spent the whole time wondering, as best as a 17-year-old could, how life could end like that, where the fairness was in it. Then my father told me the truth: This woman had committed suicide, but that couldn’t be acknowledged publicly, else it would scandalize her family and endanger her heavenly reward. We’d known she wasn’t always stable, though she’d always been gregarious with me. It was still beyond my understanding.
“Some people are just tortured souls,” my father said, with none of the gusto or speed or cliches that usually marked his fatherly wisdom. It never occurred to me until recently that I might be one of those souls.
I’d like to not have shared this sad story. I’d like to have a better one. But I’m fucking tired, and in no state to help myself. It’s been a long couple of decades.
Was my grandfather tortured, too? Did it motivate his work? Or cloud it? Or was he possessed of that chutzpah, that faith in self that rationalizes fraud and myth-peddling as something normal? The more I learn about him and his unsavory dealings — his first gun sale, of a stolen military pistol when he was a preteen, ended with a kid shooting his brother in the head — the more unsettled I am, and the more certain I felt that he *should* have been a tortured soul. Yet I am appalled at what I still don’t know about him, and certain that some key to my improvement has to lie hidden in his life story.
I don’t know if that counts as faith. Maybe just a light obsession. But at the moment, it’s what I have.