image: Mark Shoberg
Lonesome George is dead, you guys. I wish I’d known that sooner.
It’s funny how the world works. I got not one, but two, nastygrams from strangers this week, taking me to task for something I’d written for a blog I contribute to on a regular basis. But it wasn’t because the piece I’d published was mean, or acerbic, or controversial or crude; it was because smack dab in the middle of it was a big giant mistake about a tortoise who is no more.
Quick backgrounder: I write daily stories for a website focusing on companies, organizations and people doing good in the world in some way. The concept is broad but narrow; we cover brands that give back a considerable portion of their proceeds to charities — no small feat in today’s economy — or who are built on a buy-one-give-one-model. We cover individuals, too — regular joes who are paying it forward and doing cool things in the face of adversity. We write about the good stuff, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before. It’s gratifying. It’s really fun. And it’s a lot of work.
This week, I posted a piece on a company that gives back 10 percent of its proceeds (which, again, may not sound like much to the unindoctrinated, but for a startup, it’s insane) to a charity working to cure the ills that we as a society have dumped on the environment. (Now, bear with me: I’m not about to get into a political debate about global warming or saving the oceans. Just suffice it to say here’s a guy who saw what he considered to be a big problem and is doing what he can with his small business to help solve it.) The brand is predicated on the concept of Lonesome George, the very last tortoise (a pinta, to be exact) of his species, who died earlier this year. To paraphrase the company’s founder, “It’s not about cloning him or finding him a mate; it’s too late for that. It’s about learning a lesson and making sure we don’t let this happen again.” Fair enough, right? So I wrote a story about it, focusing on the tortoise as the central character, ran it on Monday, and by Wednesday, I had two ugly emails sitting in my inbox from people I’d never met.
You need better fact checkers, the first one said, and informed me that Lonesome George, to whom I’d referred as the last living member of his species, had died over the summer. At which point I sucked in my breath, Googled it faster than anyone has ever Googled anything, and began emotionally flogging myself for being such an idiot and not catching that small but clearly significant fact. I wrote her back, thanked her for the catch and made the correction in our content management system as fast as my wee little fingers could type. Rarely do I freak out over someone else doing something wrong, but when I’m the one at fault, it’s like the sky is caving in. My PR training and merciless sense of perfectionism kicked in immediately as I set about considering all the possible reasons I could have missed something like that, and how to never ever let it happen again. Add another oops to the oops pile, I thought to myself with more than an ounce of utter humiliation.
The second email, which came in the next day, was more… pointed. This is appalling. Is this a joke, or just shockingly vapid? it began. How much research do you actually do prior to promoting a particular cause or product? Are the causes themselves important or [are you] nothing more than a flimsy attempt to justify hipster consumerism with a whitewash of social consciousness? I noticed that you changed the text… to correct the egregious errors. Clearly you owe [the company founder] an apology unless his true aim is to exploit an extinct species to sell t-shirts, then I guess all you did was pull back the curtain.
I read this on my phone while I was still in bed. It was literally the first thing I saw in the morning after responding to the buzz on my nightstand. I found myself composing a response — one as elegant and humble as I could muster — before my feet had even hit the floor. And after I sent it, and stood up, and poured myself a glass of water, and patted the dog on the head, a new thought finally occured to me.
What a dick.
Both emails actually came from women. I hate the connotation behind the word “bitch,” though, so it’s less of a preset for me than “dick,” which somehow sounds funnier when you apply it to a woman, like calling a pet or a child an asshole (behind its back, of course, and oh hello, now I feel like a terrible person for even typing that out loud). The fact that it doesn’t exactly fit in terms of logic makes it greater somehow. Anyway, I thought to myself, where does this dick get off writing such a nasty jumble of words to someone who was just trying to do something nice? The next day’s story, for instance, was about an online community of craftsmen and women who are custom-designing holiday presents for underprivileged kids in the Bronx. The individual gifts are based on designs drawn by each kid; it takes the idea of a toy drive and makes it personal, introducing elementary schoolers to the creative process and letting them know they actually matter in the world. The project’s fueled by donations from sponsors who contribute online — regular people like you and me. That’s the kind of stuff we cover, up and down, every day, without fail. We’re not out to make a zillion bucks here, lady, I fumed, and the Lonesome George guy probably isn’t, either. We’re trying to do something decent. If you want to talk about materialism or people who are vapid, go send some of your anger to Fab or Gilt or one of the Kardashians. I’m really sorry I made a mistake, but your bile is misdirected.
After a flurry of texts with my boyfriend, who kindly offered to do something I won’t go into detail about (but in a nutshell, it involved vengeance and a chainsaw), it occurred to me that, rather than going about my morning having brushed off the fact that just one person was jumping to rash — mean! — conclusions about little old me and my pristine — noble! — intentions, I was instead spending the entire morning freaking the hell out about the fact that just one person was jumping to rash conclusions about little saintly old me and my impeccable intentions, and between waves of self-pity, I was sending texts about chainsaws and trying to figure out exactly what was so broken in this person’s life that she felt the need to spend her morning sending nasty emails about…
Right into the cyclone I’d jumped, like a fool. Immediately, all those pithy little platitudes that make us roll our eyes came flashing before my eyes: “Don’t bring yourself down to their level.” “Kill them with kindness.” “Bad begets bad, but good begets good.” And I decided to sit down, write something out of it, and be done. Lesson learned, moving on… back to the business of being a grown-up. Right?
But then that feeling started creeping back in again. That insidious sense of (flawed) self-righteousness that had me wondering things like Seriously? Has this woman not seen all the vitriol that’s out there? The bitchy celebrity gossip sites, the abject snark with which everything everywhere is written anymore, that show on E! where Joan Rivers sits around and talks about how fat that girl’s ass looks in that dress? Listen lady, I’m not part of some conspiracy to end the world through my posts about doing nice things. I don’t know if the guy who makes the tee shirts is a nice man or not; I don’t know how genuine he is or if he’s kind to puppies he passes on the street. But at least he’s doing something. What about you? How many mean emails have you sat on your tush sending out today from the comfort of your couch instead of doing something worth something? And then I thought: Crap. For all I know, maybe she was sending that email from the women’s shelter where she volunteers, or from the place where the Dalai Lama lives, because maybe she’s him in real life and he just likes to send out mean emails as a girl with a yahoo address in his spare time for kicks.
We’re all imperfect, I concluded. Not exactly a revelation, I know, but sometimes I forget how full of holes we all are — me included. And then, I really got put in my place.
Feeling sorry for yourself is all fun and games until you get an email from your best friend’s grandma.
I’ve met Joan maybe four times, and let me tell you, she’s magnificent. This lady has a spirit about her that’s unlike anything you’ll ever see, and she’s raised a family we probably all ought to pay attention to and maybe do a study on, because these people know what they’re doing. So when Joan talks (or emails, for that matter), you drop your BS and you listen.
amy, i have just read your blog and as always do enjoy reading your “thoughts”! however , when i read this one
, i was reflecting back to jan. of this year when i had experienced the “coughing, sneezing etc.” for about three full weeks and just assumed i was going to die! thank God i did not. but i do remember having the time as you stated to just think. and during this “crisis”, i thought how profoundly grateful i was to be at this stage – and age – in my life and to have experienced such wonderful blessings. needless to say, with these blessings have come many adversities. what we make of these or how we let these consume our life i believe is up to us – with a lot of prayer time for me personally. but my goodness, there are so many beautiful memories in my memory bank and still more to come i hope. i guess we all need this “thinking” time at some point and just wanted to share this with you. thank you for sharing your comments with me. i look forward to receiving them . i hope to see you at some point and visit with you. and i wish for you and yours a thankful Thanksgiving. your friend, joan
After I read her note, I burst into tears, missing my mom. She always had a way of zooming things back out into perspective. I try to do that, too, but shit, it’s not as easy as it looks. (Joan, if you’re reading this: sorry for all the cursing.)
I should clarify the fact that I referred to Joan’s grandson as my best friend a few lines back. I actually have a cadre of them, each one as important to me as the next. And I’m stupid lucky to have them in my corner. Even though I don’t see them or even talk to them nearly as much as I’d like, each is as much family to me as my actual family is, and in some cases, then some.
That’s sort of a thing we do when we lose people, isn’t it? When someone dies and we can’t get them back, we unknowingly seek out people who embody some of their best qualities so we can still enjoy them even after the source is gone. That’s how I choose to deal with pain. Look it in the face and fix it. Not turn it outward and smack other people around with it so they can feel it too. It’s tempting sometimes to be rude and cut people down to size, sure. But that’s the thing about temptation. Give into it too much and someone almost always gets hurt.
I realize I’m preaching to the choir here since most people reading this are either friends of mine or fellow writers who are equally empathic souls, but let’s all do ourselves a favor and take heart anyway. The next time we’re rude to someone, remember: that person may end up being a person like Joan, which makes us just about two feet tall. So, sing it, Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”