Revenge of the Mask

Revenge of the Mask
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This post is dedicated to my best friend, who is fighting for his life against brain cancer. Sean Holton is the most talented writer and journalist I've ever known. His blog on his struggle is must reading, and after well over a year of survival he is still at war. Here I cross post a piece he wrote on our time together, which seems mostly true although I could not swear to it in federal court.

Sean Holton (Same Time Tomrrow): Be careful what you mock in your youth, because what goes around comes around and the target of your mockery will often get the last laugh. A long time ago, my target was something called The Mask, and now it is finally getting its revenge.

In 1991, I moved from the Orlando Sentinel newsroom to its Washington DC bureau to be a national correspondent. One of my colleagues in the bureau at that time was Craig Crawford, who is now a successful blogger and cable TV news pundit on the Washington scene. But in those days, both Craig and I were just a couple more faces in the countless ranks of "regional newspaper reporters" in the nation's capital. That meant we were essentially nobodies in the pecking order of Washington politics and journalism. In that city, then as always, the acceptably polite greeting at social events was not "How do you do?" but "What do you do?" And if what you did wasn't important or impressive enough in the inquistor's eyes, the conversation was over before it could begin. You got the X-Ray stare as they looked right through you or over your shoulder for someone with a better answer.

Craig and I dealt with this in a fairly predictable and juvenile fashion: Through mockery. Sure, we did our jobs, covering our local congressional delegation and the specialized beats and issues that were important to our readers. You could do decent and rewarding work that way, finding good stories on your beat, developing sources within your limited sphere of influence, getting people to return your phone calls to flesh out good stories and keeping the editors at the home office happy. I even managed to school myself in the growing discipline of computer-assisted reporting, which at that time had cast off the shackles of clunky mainframes and was leaping forward on the backs of ever-more-powerful desktop computers. But on the bigger stories, forget it. Even if you were by chance able to get through to an important newsmaker, you often spent half the conversation just spelling the word Sentinel before he or she gave you the bum's rush and hung up on you.

So in our court of two judges, anyone who was adept at playing "the Washington game" -- be they powerful politician or famous journalist or merely a pretender in either profession - was guilty of having fallen under the spell of what we called The Mask. In our minds, The Mask had the power to cast those who wore it into an eternal fog of self-importance, pomposity, pretentiousness, arrogance, insincerity and phoniness; eradicating their common-sense, clouding their judgment, undermining their integrity and making them not worthy of further serious consideration or respect from regular, sane folks like us. It didn't matter if you were President George H.W. Bush or Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor and pooh-bah of insider journalism, who was always publicly proclaiming his tough-guy desire to "give my left nut" for one story after another ('How many of those can one guy have to give?' I always wondered. 'Is he walking around with a sack of marbles in his pants?'). Anyway, no one was immune to the powers of The Mask nor exempt from our derision. We even theorized that The Mask was extending its ominous reach from the confines of Washington into broader American society, as evidenced by regular warnings from airline flight attendants that adult passengers "put the mask on yourselves" before coming to the aid of their own children in the event of an in-flight emergency. So, we thought, oxygen-starved kids on commercial flights would be the final barrier of resistance in the relentless onslaught of The Mask.

Had it been 2009 instead of 1991, Craig and I could have just started up a blog to vent our professional frustrations and publish our insane theories. But the World Wide Web was still a couple years away, and the concept of blogs trailed several more years behind that. I'm not even sure if the word "snark" had been coined yet, but that's what we were practicing. Our court was in session most often during Friday happy hours at an excellent bar on 17th Street called Boss Shepherd's, which got its name from a corrupt, 19th Century Washington political boss. The only audience for our proclamations was a gigantic collection of liquor bottles, which in my memory stood like spectators in a magnificent stadium stretching across the entire 25-foot length of the bar. The bottles were lined up side-by-side and bottom-to-top on backlit, bleacher-like shelves that rose up toward the ceiling in six, maybe eight, or maybe even ten levels. We'd sit there and smoke Marlboro Lights and sample many of the delights from those glowing bottles. Every once in awhile we'd order a beer, as Craig joked, just to settle our stomachs. The bartender took our money and ignored our political theorizing, but we didn't care.

During one such session, Craig happened to look up and notice a bottle we'd never seen before. It was an oddly shaped bottle positioned high on the top shelf, and almost at the center of the bar. The bottle was a dull black, and seemed to be carved in a strange shape. We asked the bartender to hand it down so we could study it more closely. It was a 90-proof Peruvian brandy called 'Inca Pisco.' Normally we would have asked for a taste, but Craig's eyes grew wide and a smile lit up his face as he brushed layers of dust from the bottle to study it more closely, as if he were a barstool archaeologist. The front of the bottle was carved in the shape of a face -- the face of what looked to be a smiling Inca with half-closed eyes. "Look! It's the Mask!" Craig cried out. "The Mask!" He hurriedly pushed the bottle away as if were a relic from a forbidden tomb and told the bartender to take it back and return it to its place on the shelf immediately. We had a good laugh at our discovery, and pretended we had narrowly missed falling drunkenly into the snakepit of Washington insiderdom.

Well, of course, the bottle and the bar then became legendary in our eyes. Every time we went into Boss Shepherd's after that, we looked up in mock fear at The Mask sitting high up on its shelf and imagined that it was now the one holding court -- trying to cast us, too, under its spell. But for a long time, we never asked again to handle it, let alone drink from it. Our abstinence only heightened its power and mystery as the source of all that was evil and unfair and phony about Washington. We vowed that we would never become wearers of The Mask.

Then one happy hour we decided, what the hell. Let's have a pour. So the bartender pulled the bottle down, yanked out its crumbly cork and dribbled out what turned out to be its last few ounces of Inca Pisco into our waiting shot glasses. We each took a sip, and thought it tasted awful and sour. That bottle must have been sitting up there for years without anyone ordering a drink from it. But we made much of the fact that we had finally taken on The Mask directly and beaten it on its own turf, draining the last drops of life from it. I even asked the bartender if I could take the empty bottle home with me so I could display it on my bookshelf like some sort of war trophy. He was more than happy to play his part in our little game. Otherwise, he would have just tossed it into the trash barrel.

But The Mask was not finished with either of us, not by a long shot. Drinking its final drops may have led us each to surrender to it later, in two entirely different ways.

Not long after that episode, Craig and I moved on to other jobs. He was hired to be the editor of The Hotline, a low-tech but brilliantly conceived aggregator of political news from sources all over the country that was the precursor to today's ubiquitous array of political websites and blogs. One of a kind in those days, The Hotline was invented by a very down-to-earth and unassuming man named Doug Bailey. It was produced each day from political news scissor-clipped from papers around the country, pasted up, printed up and hand-delivered by noon to its many subscribers around Washington. One of Craig's first big headaches after being hired there in 1997 was completing the transition to a "fax edition," but lots of the old-time subscribers resisted -- clinging to their addiction to the more handsomely printed hand-delivered edition. How funny to think about such a delivery-system controversy these days. But considered a must-read among the cognoscente, The Hotline propelled Craig to a higher profile in Washington that enabled him to take his first real steps toward the success he enjoys today. Suddenly, people at parties in DC weren't looking through Craig with X-ray eyes anymore. He was the same old Craig, but now they wanted to actually talk to him. The Post even did a big splash on him in its Style section. He was getting included in events we once made fun of, like the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Craig to this day still chafes a bit about going to such boring affairs. But he admits that, in more than just a teensy-tinsy way, he had himself become a wearer of The Mask out of pure practicality. But I like to think that Craig really became its master, since his unique insights about Washington have survived and are expressed on his blog, TV appearances and places like the Don Imus show. His take on the day's news is still driven by the spirit of our crazy ranting at those happy hour sessions at Boss Shepherd's.

I moved back to Orlando in 1999 to become Projects Editor In Charge Of Investigations That Typically Take Months To Complete and a couple years later was pulled onto an obscure, uphill and soul-killing stretch of the upper-management track into a job called Associate Managing Editor In Charge Of Getting Hit Over The Head By One Hundred Baseball Bats A Day. In that post, I oversaw a deeply talented staff of about 90 reporters and editors covering local and state news. Washington became a distant memory to me over those years as my hair fell out and my waistline grew under the stress of working late each night actually having to put out a daily newspaper instead of just heading to the bar after work to crack wise. Today, I'm out of the business and all the cuts that have been made to newspaper newsrooms across the country have shrunk my dear old metro staff to probably half its former size. The cuts also have sadly reduced the once-swollen and striving ranks of "regional reporters" in the capital city. Even the major papers that were once the masters of the Beltway now find themselves beleagured and challenged for scoops and relevance by new startup websites and bloggers. I'm sure the daily texture of the world of journalism in that city is entirely different than it was when Craig and I sat on our barstools and howled unpublishable inanities at our happy audience of bottles. But I hope that today's no-name reporters, whatever their medium, are still finding time to cook up crazy Friday-night-happy-hour theories about imaginary dark forces such as The Mask.

Meanwhile, I still have my favorite souvenir from those days: That empty bottle of Inca Pisco from Boss Shepherd's, once the dark ruler over all of Washington, now sits in retirement up on the highest shelf in my kitchen in Orlando, lord of my pots and pans and anything else that falls under its half-closed eyes. And now I have a new Mask to go with it. This one is made of a white, plastic mesh that was heated like soft wax and molded to fit my head perfectly like a custom, whole-head goalie's mask. It's sole purpose is to lock my head into place with bolts and hold it absolutely still on a steel table so that precisely aimed beams of radiation (way more powerful than any DC diss-ray) can zap the remnants of my brain tumor into smithereens day after day for the next six weeks. I did my first two doses on Thursday and Friday, but will get a break on weekends. So I, too, am now a wearer of The Mask. I kind of like it, even though it makes me look like the psycho terrorizing a teen summer camp in a slasher flick. It fits quite comfortably, and it may even help save my life.

So maybe some day after I get through this ordeal, I will take my new Mask with me on a trip to DC and wear it to a boring party of insiders. Craig would easily be able to sneak me in past the door. I'm sure I would scare the shit out of everyone.

-- Sean Holton (Same Time Tomrrow)

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