The subtitle to David Eddie’s Damage Control tells you a lot about his particular approach to the genteel art of proffering advice to the desperate—after all, ”How to Tiptoe Away from the Smoking Wreckage of your Latest Screw-Up with a Minimum of Harm to Your Reputation” is not a phrase most authors would want emblazoned on their book’s dust jacket. But Eddie, whose popular advice column of the same name runs weekly in the Globe and Mail, believes in cutting through the wishy-washy tone and moral judgements of the typical life-guide expert to get to the heart of the matter: people screw up–quite often actually–and having screwn up, they usually wish to make amends. That’s where Eddie steps in: he names the screw-up in bold-face letters, then talks the red-faced perpetrator back to earth with solid advice. Books@Torontoist editor James Grainger spoke with David Eddie about his book-length guide to wiping the egg off your face and making good with the people who matter.
Torontoist: You describe yourself as a first-class screw-up, a veritable King of the Faux Pas. What gives you the right to dole out advice to your fellow screw-ups?
David Eddie: As you say, I have extensive experience in screw-ups, with particular emphasis on faux-pas management. But mainly I feel the right to dole out advice because I love problems. I find problems, screw-ups, and messed-up situations fascinating. Most people are bored by/want to avoid their own problems, let alone other people’s. That’s why they give such lousy advice. You tell them the problem, and then ask: “Should I do A or B?” They say (barely looking up from their Crackberries), “Uh, A.” Then you say “But what about such-and-such a factor militating against doing A?” And they’ll say, “Uh, well, then, do B.”
Useless! Because they don’t care. But me, I love problems! I believe problems are the essence—the cake of life, if you will–and all the rest is just the frosting; that when you’re not having a problem you’re “between problems” and it’s great, but it won’t last. I like turning problems in my hand, examining them from every angle. God/the devil is in the details. I love really drilling into problems. That’s why I always give top-notch, certified Grade A advice, brothers and sisters. Accept no substitutes. If it’s not by David Eddie, it’s not Damage Control.
Also, hey, I don’t mean to brag, but you asked: I’ve been happily married to a babe-a-licious bombshell who is also Smart, Sexy, Sane, and Soulful, the Four Esses Every bachelor Seeks™ for 17 years; engaged in work I love; popular with the masses; a good dad; and I look good doing it. Why not me? If not me, who?
Torontoist: At what point did you and your editing partner feel that you’d collectively accrued enough knowledge to write a book on damage control?
David: We did it for four years for the late, lamented men’s magazine Toro (an intelligent men’s magazine: perhaps you can begin to detect in that almost oxymoronic phrase the seeds of its eventual demise), then after about a year of doing it for Canada’s blue-chip daily, The Globe and Mail, Pat Lynch (my editor, who edited this book also) started kicking my ass to write a book. It was obvious we were striking a chord. Agree or disagree, the debate raged across the country and on the internet about every question. People love to weigh in about this stuff.
Torontoist: What is the best and quickest form of personal damage control?
David: The apology. But it must be sincere, it must be honest, and it must be humble. Look at Letterman: he saved his whole career with a heartfelt mea culpa. That was brilliant, textbook damage control, boys and girls. Tiger Woods and our own Adam Giambrone of the T.T.C.—not so much. Of course, when something shameful and shocking blows up in yur face, the natural human impulse is to fill the air with lies, then disappear. It’s a natural human impulse, but it’s terrible damage control. Take charge of the situation, take responsibility for your actions, and you will find people can forgive almost anything.
Remember: “People can forgive you almost anything, as long as you don’t insult their intelligence.” That’s a line from the book. People hate having their intelligence insulted. When you insult their intelligence, that’s when they start getting the bags of feathers and heating up the buckets of tar. In the book, we lay out the several degrees of apology. There’s the makepeace apology (e.g. “I’m sorry you feel like I was out of line”), a good transitional type of apology, which helps in certain situations. Then there’s the type my wife, Pam, is always trying to squeeze out of me: the “I’m sorry and I promise never to do it again,” and so on. But this is kind of “master class” stuff, and I’m afraid your readers are gonna have to shell out $30 (or at least flip through the book in the bookstore) to hear more.
Torontoist: Are there screw-ups and faux pas from which no one can recover?
David: I’m afraid so, at least in the short term. Former NY Governor Elliot Spitzer getting caught doing the very thing he’d always pooh-poohed and been so high and mighty about—patronizing sex workers—and zealously ferreted out in other people’s lives, and prosecuted men for. Here at Damage Control Headquarters (located in a fortified bunker somewhere deep in the Ozark mountains), we watched his flameout and terse apology, stony-faced (man, was she stony-faced: you could look up the phrase “stony faced” in the dictionary, and you’d find pictures of the statues on Easter Island, and her) wife by his side, on the monitors in the Media Room. And a couple of staffers muttered some speculations on how he might recover. But we all knew: he was a total Icarus whose time had come, and no amount of wing-flapping would stop his earthward plummet.
Kramer (Michael Richards) was another one, with his racist rant at that nightclub. Remember? Where he said, in a racist rant that included frequent angry use of the n-word, among other things, “50 years ago we’d have you upside down with a fork up your ass” to a heckler (a statement we’re still scratching our heads over, to be honest)? He went on Letterman, and, assisted by Jerry Seinfeld, with his hair all greased down, went into a big mea culpa, but we could not help but feel, to paraphrase a quote from “The Butter Shave” episode of Seinfeld, “stick a fork in him, Jerry, he’s done.”
But there’s always time. Maybe if these two lay low long enough, they will be able to make some sort of partial comeback. We shall see. All will be revealed in the fullness of time™.
Torontoist: You write in the book that, as an advice columnist, your first loyalty is to the “client” or person who wrote to you with his or her problem. What do you say when the client is so obviously in the wrong? Do you ever want to throttle your clients?
David: No, never. I try to be very compassionate and understanding of other people’s screw-ups. I hate advice columnists who say “you shouldn’t have done that.” The poor zhlub knows he/she shouldn’t have done whatever it was! That’s why he/she wrote in! The whole point of damage control is “I know I screwed up, now what do I do?” It doesn’t work if I’m judgmental about the screw-up itself. But part of my duty to them is, I feel, to point out when they’re being misguided and/or DON’T or CAN’T see some obvious way they’re erring. For example, I find a lot of younger people who write in—“Generation Hook Up,” I call them—have very hazy notions of fidelity and monogamy, and yet don’t understand when relationships blow up in their faces. I call them out on that.
Torontoist: We’ve had at least a century of advice from shrinks, columnists, and other experts. Is all that advice actually helpful?
David: No. Beware so-called experts. In time past we would turn with these types of questions to philosophers, men and women of demonstrated wisdom, and/or “village elder” types. These phony/mountebank/charlatan/snake-oil salespeople of advice of the modern era are just adding to the confusion of modern life.
Advice columnists are the worst. Their lordly pontifications make me ILL. And they always make me wonder, when I read their stuff, how wonderfully their lives are arranged that they have the effrontery to tell everyone else how to live. Like Ann Landers and her sister Abigail Van Buren, who wrote the column “Ask Abby.” They fought like rats in a cage their whole lives, went years without speaking to one another, but of course that didn’t stop them from dishing out the “how to deal with your family” advice by the wheelbarrow-load. Advice-givers—whatever they call themselves: shrinks, columnists, whatever—are mostly crackpots without an ounce of common sense between them.
I am the exception that proves the rule. And if I ever stray from the path of common sense, I have an extremely grounded and commonsensical editor, Pat Lynch, as well as a very grounded and well-respected woman—my wife, Pam—to keep me in line. You get three sensibilities for the price of one, baby!