"I don't understand your blog anymore lately," my wife said. "It has a madman quality to it." She said that one of her girlfriends had said so, too.
I'd like to say I swallowed hard. I'd like to say I called my writers up for an emergency staff meeting. But I did not. I took her comment with equanimity at first. Actually, I went on reading my excellent bedtime book, Not Quite The Diplomat by Chris Patten. Good, frank memoir about America and Europe. I recommend it.
But I respect her opinion. And I knew that it wasn't just, as she generously offered a moment later, a case of my American cultural references not getting through. No, no: there was something else. Readership has been dropping for a long time. On a recent posting, I actually got a grand total of one Chinese spam comment -- in Mandarin -- which, as anyone knows, counts as negative one comments. Going by an average of hits, profile views and comments, the situation is grave. And whenever I mention even a slightly popular keyword, like "USA", Chinese crap salesmen jump all over it.
The biggest single-day dropoff was when Obama was inaugurated. Before January 20, people used to hang out on the blog and banter; comments would sometimes push the 30 mark. Commenters would come back to visit and check if anyone had replied to their comments, always a sign of critical mass. Blue, Black and White Alert was once the #2 or #3 English-language blog in Estonia on some days, like the 11th. Not anymore. September 11, 2001 may not have been the death of irony, as Jon Stewart predicted, but for some odd reason, January 20 had been the death of sporadically funny political satire from a small northern country.
Not that it bothered me very much. But sometimes I felt I had interfered with some highly private "era of good feelings" that had come over people, and that they resented it highly. But how could it be? After all, to me Obama was clearly a total fraud -- in the American canon, the turn-of-the-century snake-oil salesman in a painted wagon. He had seemed normal for about four days, then he had started talking about terrorism. So how could be like FDR? FDR had said there was nothing to fear but fear itself, and here was ol' Barack talking about how people were going to go durka durka on us again if we didn't stay vigilant. Obama's metamorphosis had been like the Manchurian Candidate's. By March he was using every rhetorical device Karl Rove had ever perfected. He even spoke of something called "preventive detention" at one point. Civil libertarians like the EFF groaned: Obama was worse than Bush. Finally, in December, even Cheney sounded a note of caution -- peevishly complaining that Obama would eclipse Bush's legacy if he kept it up.
Still, I was a rationalist. I applied Occam's Razor. Probably Obama was just warming up for an really good 2010. Probably society wasn't mad. Neither were my readers.
That left the other possibility: that I was a madman.
I went to a shrink the next day.
"Everything all right at home?" she asked.
"This hasn't been a calculated move to scuttle readership?"
I shook my head.
"Well, you're not crazy," said the shrink. "And Afghanistan is a terrible, terrible war. Just wrong. Of course, it's bound to be good for my practice, with all the veterans, but so unfulfilling. The problem with your blog, I think, is that it is too concentrated sometimes. It's like that Estonian 30% vinegar. Sometimes I put it in my food by accident. The stuff is corrosive. I can't believe they sell it in shops in Estonia without warning labels."
"Your blog is also disingenuous," the shrink went on, but I could tell that she was rambling. Anyway, my disingenuousness was the literary device I held most dear!
But I thought about the "concentrated" part. Could it be? I knew what the shrink was talking about. I had diluted 30% vinegar 1:5 just the other day, thinking that that would be enough, and it still burned the tongue. It was like vitriol. My dinner party guests had asked me for chili peppers to get rid of the burning sensation.
"You need to keep the blog light, without wild leaps," said the shrink. "People -- the ones who haven't ditched blogs for Twitter -- want stuff about minor issues. Japanese bloggers figured it out a long time ago. Write about almost nothing, with a genial, feel-good vibe. Something like...well, 30% vinegar. Literally. Little cultural differences. Afghanistan, though -- that's a big cultural similarity. It's a background issue with minor variations. The only thing that is different is the flags draped on the coffins."
"But I don't want to write about salad dressing," I said. "I can't do that. There's things that have to be discussed now, even if they're uncomfortable. People can't go on daydreaming with an elephant at the table."
"Look, I'm not your editor, I'm not your agent. But I would change something. Your last post may have been a lot of things, but it certainly wasn't a recap of the decade. Give me a break. That was just a rant about Flight 253. Then it got to the little asterisks, and kept on going. It was awful! Like actually landing in Detroit!"
"New Year's is coming up," she went on. "Give the people what they need. A proper recap. If you can't do that, how about some predictions? You haven't been too far off the mark. If there's one thing that sells besides escapism in Estonia, it's prophecy. And the best thing is, no one will remember what you said. It's a highly forgiving country even if they do. I think you should try. The old prophets and seers are fading. Igor Mang has been wrong quite a lot of a time. This Anastasia woman, there's something I don't trust about her."
I thought about it. Yes, it was true. I had to re-establish my niche. Colbert imitations would not cut it. I don't have the sustained invention. I had to somehow re-establish my sanity and authoritative voice before my readers. To try to reel in the old ones and repay the readers who had stayed with me. And I had been gambling in simulated casinos recently while doing research for a 1930s theme party, and I had been on a rather hot streak in craps, if I do say so myself.
Yes, damn it, I was sane, confident, people liked me, and most of all, I was lucky. I vowed -- nay, predicted -- that my next piece would be the stuff of prophecy.