Ted Brand walked onstage in a hazmat suit. Being that his audience was Columbia freshmen, they laughed. Many had already watched Ted’s TED talk. In that video he didn’t arrive in a hazmat suit but spoke extremely fast. He said a lot of things that sounded interesting, but each thought had little to do with the interesting thought that came before or the interesting one that followed. He used simple graphs and out-of-context photos of animals and celebrities to convey statistics; his swift, well-timed jokes encouraged perceptive viewers to infer that this was the mortar for the interesting thoughts. He also affirmed the Hap brand of positive psychology, just like other members of The Family had done in their popular TED talks. The TED site included links to these other talks. The number of hits for the one delivered by Alan Hapgood made it the sixteenth most watched TED talk of all time.
“Have any of you seen the movie The Return of Martin Guerre?” Ted asked the freshmen.
A few hands went up.
“Wow. I’m impressed. But then I have to remember that for every feature film that gets made, four months later there’s a porno with the same title.” Because he spoke through an electronic device in the mask, his voice came out Space Odyssey digital. Or maybe former-smoker-with-voicebox-PSA. He was sweating something fierce, but it wasn’t because he was nervous. On the contrary, he never felt more relaxed and himself than during his talks onstage to strangers.
He showed a slide of Gerard Depardieu as a sixteenth-century peasant. “I’m pleased to inform you that this guy is not the porno version. He’s playing a guy pretending to be a guy who’s gone off to war and is now returning to his wife and community. We call it identify theft. The French call it literature. But, hey.”
Inside the suit, Ted was operating from a cool understanding of the terrain staked out by TED but colonized much earlier in an oil slick of motivational speaking. TED talks were popular because everyone giving one had a simple answer. People love hearing simple answers even when problems remain incredibly complex. The talks were also popular because the speakers constitute entertainment, and, like the soul of lingerie, they were brief.
Why was Ted Brand wearing a hazmat suit? Why was he showing a still from a thirty-year-old movie about an identity-thieving peasant?
Probably because people want to stop hating on themselves. They want to make the hateful parts of their chronic behaviors go far, far away, like Martin Guerre. And they are perfectly willing to buy things—even ideas—to make this happen.
“Feel free to make conjectures about what I’m like underneath as I go backstage and pour out two gallons of self-generated saltwater.”
He would leave the stage and return without the prop—in his signature attire of nondescript good but not-too-good suit and no tie, collar open. Like a nondenominational spiritual counselor at a senior center, like he worked in a meet-and-greet capacity at a Disney-owned convention center. Ted Brand was a nebulously handsome young man whose geniality at clicking for the next slide rendered him asexual but not curiously so. His looks were neither over nor under; he was a guy who seemed reasonable and knowable—no great depths to be plumbed. He would at some point mention the obvious about tomorrow’s 2012 opener at Fenway—that it was Friday the 13th. The kids would laugh and trust him. The Red Sox were the beard of men of divergent cultural likes all over New England. In Manhattan especially, Sox fans were the most innocuous of species.
He told the freshmen about his own strange version of the real Martin Guerre’s identity theft while a sophomore at Harvard. He made a pictorial joke about the Harvard freshman dining hall’s resemblance to Hogwarts. And he pointed out that the way many of them were living—fretting the competitiveness of an Ivy League institution, never focusing on the good, only the bad—was not unlike him in that miserable suit. Impervious to positive stories and feelings, stuck in learned habits of negativity and self-persecution. Bam, bam, bam down the list: escaping the cult of the average, the links between positive brains and success, the life advantages enjoyed by happy workers/students.
He knew he already had them. It still gave him a disturbing sense of euphoria. Tempering this, however, was the sudden memory of what Jude had just confessed. In a nutshell, the thrill was gone. “Don’t you feel that you’re in one of those skits from a fifties variety show—the clown at his dressing table under the single spotlight, sadly rubbing off his clown face for the camera?” Ted had laughed away the proposition. “But we’re the Joker underneath the makeup. It doesn’t come off.”
Shake it off, Ted. Walk it out. Proceed directly to the science part: DOPAMINE! Neurotransmitters! You can’t argue with a couple slides of science to sweeten your case. He showed them the classic Invisible Gorilla Test clip and assured them that “positive psychology techniques can rewire your brain in twenty-one consecutive days. Twenty-one days is nothing—unless of course you’re a chicken, which lives an average of forty-six.”
Writing down three things you are grateful for every morning, beginning the day by emailing a friend or colleague to say how much you appreciate him or her, keeping a journal, exercising and meditating, initiating random acts of kindness. What was so hard about it? “I remember hearing a motivational speaker when I was in high school,” Ted told the freshmen. “This guy said, ‘You have to ask yourself: Am I weak or am I strong? Am I brave or am I a coward? Am I a victim or am I a fighter? Am I a ditherer or am I proactive?’
“Enough with the self-pummeling! You don’t have to fight like I did for your own identity. All you have to do is be ready to start. ‘This is the day of the crease in my life, cracking the book at its center, because I’m not going back to that.’
“Positive psychology gets it that the real cause of or reason for something is often hiding in plain sight. Hiding in plain sight, dudes. It’s not that your mother dropped you on your head or your father was on the road all the time. Behaviors we think badly of ourselves for having are often learned mental shortcuts. Even what is perceived as having what my dad always called ‘a lousy disposition’ is usually learned, well-worn pathways of negative response. It’s like the disruption theory in economics: The solution to a problem will be irrelevant when an innovation makes the problem obsolete. And the innovation here is behavior modification steps in twenty-one days.
“Positive psychology operates transparently, no strings. And it has its own three R’s: retool, reinvent, and reinvigorate. And remember: Don’t overthink this.”
As supplicants at an Ivy League school, they still needed affirmation beyond the ordinary. He looked out at them and realized this collective longing for affiliation with the immortals. For instance, Jefferson giving the high-five to their new lives with rewired pathways: “Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.” And Da Vinci—of course, da Vinci! He drew inspiration from everything: “It should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which, if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas.”
It never ceased to amaze him how people drank up any random quote from a famous person if you simultaneously displayed the text onscreen. If he showed the right slide, he could pour his hazmat sweat into a champagne flute and they’d suck it up with beating wings and needle-like beaks.
As a wind-down, he talked about the organization he “proudly” worked for and was helping to grow. Everyone knew Hap—the man, the method, the three bestsellers, the dashing clasped handshakes with Dr. Oz—and they liked to hear the story of how it came to be. Alan Hapgood was a man with a halo. “The haters, the downers—they will always be there. But when the trolls played mean, we were the ones to brand it a Hap Smear.”
That was Mariette’s ingenuity. It was incredible the way Hap kept coming out on top without any of The Family having to push the boundaries of dignity while in character. For instance, none could ever lower him or herself to say the word journaling. Mariette would puke at the second syllable. But last fall Ethylynn had somehow bypassed the journaling conundrum altogether and went directly to scrapbooking without passing Go—used the word onstage without losing the mojo. They were awestruck watching the clip. She’d taken the épat to an entirely new level.
Then, a mere thirty-six hours after this milestone, Ethylynn was hit by a sanitation truck and killed in a pretty miserable way. This incredible girl from the Bronx who graduated Harvard—born with a faulty mitral valve, not supposed to live more than three months. Beautiful smile, beautiful eyes.
Call it a terrible fluke all you want. But the Hap Family knew: That’s exactly what fucking lousy shitty life was like.