Lessons from Drunk Irishmen

I just started watching The Wire recently, as a reward for finishing a big project. (I am currently on s04, e09, dreading the heartbreak that’s surely ahead. To quote Lorrie Moore: “On the other hand, so engrossing, heart-tugging, and uncertain are the various story arcs that watching in this manner one becomes filled with a kind of mesmerized dread.” Yup.) In an age of police-drama crap from Law & Order: Your Mom to CSI: David Caruso as Christian Bale in Batman, it’s easy to see why The Wire gets the hosannahs it does, did, and wholly deserved - save for its shallow female characters, although can you argue that’s part of the point? - as a show that reinvents the cop show formula, turning it inside out into a portrait of a dying American city. It’s easy, too, to see David Simon’s Baltimore in other dying American cities - even in miniature when you drive around upstate New York. Abandoned buildings, abandoned people. No commerce.

Detective James McNulty’s the one that gets me, sometimes. Watching him work the first season, annoying his superiors with his drive to be good police - and then, at the end, confessing that he went after the Barksdale case because he wanted to be acknowledged as “the smartest guy in the room”… it was hard not to relate. A small lesson that’s easy to take away from the show is Don’t Be Like McNulty. Because even though he’s good at his job, and has the smart-assitude and forthrightness to go after corruption even if it’s not careerist, it’s not the sort of thing that fortifies a healthy life. He drinks too much, he’s singlemindedly obsessed with his job, having it sum up who he is, and ultimately, he’s alienating everyone who can guarantee his future.

There’s a certain petulant streak of Irish smart-assedness that runs in my family, I believe. My dad has it, I’ve heard loads of stories about it, sometimes I have it to a degree. The sort of thing where you want to outsmart an adversary as opposed to figuring out the most straight way through the problem. Being acknowledged as the smartest guy in the room isn’t the most fulfilling compliment, ultimately. It mostly just means you’re not that good at getting along with people, keeping your head down. I have a tendency to probably come off as more of a smart-aleck than I mean to, sometimes, simply because I have a good memory. It’s not the most socially fluent skill and it probably looks a little bit worse on a woman, I must admit. It’s my inner McNulty, and if I want to get along in life, have money in the bank for retirement, and also have the time to do work that helps people, I have to quiet that little voice, that tendency. I have to be aware of it, too. The first step probably requires acquiring some form of poker face, where there is currently none.

So, as a resolution, I want to make my inner McNulty into my inner Detective Lester Freeman. He got burned as a young McNulty, but years later, he learned how to play the game. How to pursue good work without burning the house down in punk defiance. It’s a tricky thing to figure out - clearly, David Simon, with his burning anger over the death of newsprint, etc., is still rather McNultyish in some ways - but I think it would be helpful.

Other, actual sayings of wisdom and resolution that will surely resonate through 2011? Be more curious, for one. And, most importantly - you have to be purposefully naive if you decide to pursue anything. Someone great said that to me and it’s been banging around my head like a ping pong ball. I’ve been approaching hopes, wishes, and dreams with this attitude of “I’ll do it, it’ll be good and maybe it’ll work out but it’s likely that the world will go pear-shaped or something so I should prepare for the worst and not be disappointed.” Nope, that’s not the right attitude for life. That’s just being scared. I am going to be purposefully naive.