Radiation (Part I): Revenge of The Mask

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on August 22, 2009
Washington Mask

Washington Mask

Radiation Mask
Radiation Mask

Be careful what you mock in your youth, because what goes around comes around and the target of your mockery will often get the last laugh. A long time ago, my target was something called The Mask, and now it is finally getting its revenge.

In 1991, I moved from the Orlando Sentinel newsroom to its Washington DC bureau to be a national correspondent. One of my colleagues in the bureau at that time was Craig Crawford, who is now a successful blogger and cable TV news pundit on the Washington scene. But in those days, both Craig and I were just a couple more faces in the countless ranks of “regional newspaper reporters” in the nation’s capital. That meant we were essentially nobodies in the pecking order of Washington politics and journalism. In that city, then as always, the acceptably polite greeting at social events was not “How do you do?” but “What do you do?” And if what you did wasn’t important or impressive enough in the inquistor’s eyes, the conversation was over before it could begin. You got the X-Ray stare as they looked right through you or over your shoulder for someone with a better answer.

Craig and I dealt with this in a fairly predictable and juvenile fashion: Through mockery. Sure, we did our jobs, covering our local congressional delegation and the specialized beats and issues that were important to our readers. You could do decent and rewarding work that way, finding good stories on your beat, developing sources within your limited sphere of influence, getting people to return your phone calls to flesh out good stories and keeping the editors at the home office happy. I even managed to school myself in the growing discipline of computer-assisted reporting, which at that time had cast off the shackles of clunky mainframes and was leaping forward on the backs of ever-more-powerful desktop computers.  But on the bigger stories, forget it. Even if you were by chance able to get through to an important newsmaker, you often spent half the conversation just spelling the word Sentinel before he or she gave you the bum’s rush and hung up on you.

So in our court of two judges, anyone who was adept at playing “the Washington game” — be they powerful politician or famous journalist or merely a pretender in either profession — was guilty of having fallen under the spell of what we called The Mask. In our minds, The Mask had the power to cast those who wore it into an eternal fog of self-importance, pomposity, pretentiousness, arrogance, insincerity and phoniness; eradicating their common-sense, clouding their judgment, undermining their integrity and making them not worthy of further serious consideration or respect from regular, sane folks like us. It didn’t matter if you were President George H.W. Bush or Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor and pooh-bah of  insider journalism, who was always publicly proclaiming his tough-guy desire to “give my left nut” for one story after another (‘How many of those can one guy have to give?’ I always wondered. ‘Is he walking around with a sack of marbles in his pants?’). Anyway, no one was immune to the powers of The Mask nor exempt from our derision. We even theorized that The Mask was extending its ominous reach from the confines of Washington into broader American society, as evidenced by regular warnings from airline flight attendants that adult passengers “put the mask on yourselves” before coming to the aid of their own children in the event of an in-flight emergency. So, we thought, oxygen-starved kids on commercial flights would be the final barrier of resistance in the relentless onslaught of The Mask.

Had it been 2009 instead of 1991, Craig and I could have just started up a blog to vent our professional frustrations and publish our insane theories. But the World Wide Web was still a couple years away, and the concept of blogs trailed several more years behind that. I’m not even sure if the word “snark” had been coined yet, but that’s what we were practicing. Our court was in session most often during Friday happy hours at an excellent bar on 17th Street called Boss Shepherd’s, which got its name from a corrupt, 19th Century Washington political boss. The only audience for our proclamations was a gigantic collection of liquor bottles, which in my memory stood like spectators in a magnificent stadium stretching across the entire 25-foot length of the bar. The bottles were lined up side-by-side and bottom-to-top on backlit, bleacher-like shelves that rose up toward the ceiling in six, maybe eight, or maybe even ten levels. We’d sit there and smoke Marlboro Lights and sample many of the delights from those glowing bottles. Every once in awhile we’d order a beer, as Craig joked, just to settle our stomachs. The bartender took our money and ignored our political theorizing, but we didn’t care.

During one such session, Craig happened to look up and notice a bottle we’d never seen before. It was an oddly shaped bottle positioned high on the top shelf, and almost at the center of the bar. The bottle was a dull black, and seemed to be carved in a strange shape.  We asked the bartender to hand it down so we could study it more closely. It was a 90-proof Peruvian brandy called ‘Inca Pisco.’ Normally we would have asked for a taste, but Craig’s eyes grew wide and a smile lit up his face as he brushed layers of dust from the bottle to study it more closely, as if he were a barstool archaeologist. The front of the bottle was carved in the shape of a face — the face of what looked to be a smiling Inca with half-closed eyes. “Look! It’s the Mask!” Craig cried out. “The Mask!” He hurriedly pushed the bottle away as if were a relic from a forbidden tomb and told the bartender to take it back and return it to its place on the shelf immediately.  We had a good laugh at our discovery, and pretended we had narrowly missed falling drunkenly into the snakepit of Washington insiderdom.

Well, of course, the bottle and the bar then became legendary in our eyes. Every time we went into Boss Shepherd’s after that, we looked up in mock fear at The Mask sitting high up on its shelf and imagined that it was now the one holding court — trying to cast us, too, under its spell. But for a long time, we never asked again to handle it, let alone drink from it. Our abstinence only heightened its power and mystery as the source of all that was evil and unfair and phony about Washington. We vowed that we would never become wearers of The Mask.

Then one happy hour we decided, what the hell. Let’s have a pour. So the bartender pulled the bottle down, yanked out its crumbly cork and dribbled out what turned out to be its last few ounces of Inca Pisco into our waiting shot glasses. We each took a sip, and thought it tasted awful and sour. That bottle must have been sitting up there for years without anyone ordering a drink from it. But we made much of the fact that we had finally taken on The Mask directly and beaten it on its own turf, draining the last drops of life from it. I even asked the bartender if I could take the empty bottle home with me so I could display it on my bookshelf like some sort of war trophy. He was more than happy to play his part in our little game. Otherwise, he would have just tossed it into the trash barrel.

But The Mask was not finished with either of us, not by a long shot. Drinking its final drops may have led us each to surrender to it later, in two entirely different ways.

Not long after that episode, Craig and I moved on to other jobs. He was hired to be the editor of  The Hotline, a low-tech but brilliantly conceived aggregator of political news from sources all over the country that was the precursor to today’s ubiquitous array of political websites and blogs. One of a kind in those days, The Hotline was invented by a very down-to-earth and unassuming man named Doug Bailey. It was produced each day from political news scissor-clipped from papers around the country, pasted up, printed up and hand-delivered by noon to its many subscribers around Washington. One of Craig’s first big headaches after being hired there in 1997 was completing the transition to a “fax edition”, but lots of the old-time subscribers resisted — clinging to their addiction to the more handsomely printed hand-delivered edition. How funny to think about such a delivery-system controversy these days. But considered a must-read among the cognoscente, The Hotline propelled Craig to a higher profile in Washington that enabled him to take his first real steps toward the success he enjoys today. Suddenly, people at parties in DC weren’t looking through Craig with X-ray eyes anymore. He was the same old Craig, but now they wanted to actually talk to him. The Post even did a big splash on him in its Style section. He was getting included in events we once made fun of, like the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Craig to this day still chafes a bit about going to such boring affairs. But he admits that, in more than just a teensy-tinsy way, he had himself  become a wearer of The Mask out of pure practicality. But I like to think that Craig really became its master, since his unique insights about Washington have survived and are expressed on his blog, TV appearances and places like the Don Imus show. His take on the day’s news is still driven by the spirit of our crazy ranting at those happy hour sessions at Boss Shepherd’s.

I moved back to Orlando in 1999 to become Projects Editor In Charge Of Investigations That Typically Take Months To Complete and a couple years later was pulled onto an obscure, uphill and soul-killing stretch of the upper-management track into a job called Associate Managing Editor In Charge Of Getting Hit Over The Head By One Hundred Baseball Bats A Day. In that post, I oversaw a deeply talented staff of about 90 reporters and editors covering local and state news. Washington became a distant memory to me over those years as my hair fell out and my waistline grew under the stress of working late each night actually having to put out a daily newspaper instead of just heading to the bar after work to crack wise. Today, I’m out of the business and all the cuts that have been made to newspaper newsrooms across the country have shrunk my dear old metro staff to probably half its former size. The cuts also have sadly reduced the once-swollen and striving ranks of “regional reporters” in the capital city. Even the major papers that were once the masters of the Beltway now find themselves beleagured and challenged for scoops and relevance by new startup websites and bloggers. I’m sure the daily texture of the world of journalism in that city is entirely different than it was when Craig and I sat on our barstools and howled unpublishable inanities at our happy audience of bottles. But I hope that today’s no-name reporters, whatever their medium, are still finding time to cook up crazy Friday-night-happy-hour theories about imaginary dark forces such as The Mask.

Meanwhile, I still have my favorite souvenir from those days: That empty bottle of Inca Pisco from Boss Shepherd’s, once the dark ruler over all of Washington, now sits in retirement up on the highest shelf in my kitchen in Orlando, lord of my pots and pans and anything else that falls under its half-closed eyes. And now I have a new Mask to go with it. This one is made of a white, plastic mesh that was heated like soft wax and molded to fit my head perfectly like a custom, whole-head goalie’s mask. It’s sole purpose is to lock my head into place with bolts and hold it absolutely still on a steel table so that precisely aimed beams of radiation (way more powerful than any DC diss-ray) can zap the remnants of my brain tumor into smithereens day after day for the next six weeks. I did my first two doses on Thursday and Friday, but will get a break on weekends. So I, too, am now a wearer of The Mask. I kind of like it, even though it makes me look like the psycho terrorizing a teen summer camp in a slasher flick. It fits quite comfortably, and it may even help save my life.

So maybe some day after I get through this ordeal, I will take my new Mask with me on a trip to DC and wear it to a boring party of insiders. Craig would easily be able to sneak me in past the door. I’m sure I would scare the shit out of everyone.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Thanks for all the great comments. I’ve read every one of them. I had no idea so many people I don’t even know would reach out in such a supportive way. Since this blog was initially intended just to keep family and friends up to date on my progress, I didn’t include a lot of the basic background information about who the hell I am. But I’ll try to add more of that as we go along.


39 Responses

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  1. Craig Crawford said, on August 22, 2009 at 7:59 am

    Finally, a reason to go to one of those parties. Watch your top knot, mister.

  2. Patsi Bale Cox said, on August 22, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Sean, as they say in Texas: “Love-you-no-shit!”

  3. Flatus said, on August 22, 2009 at 8:58 am

    What a tremendous tale. God, don’t we all wear masks. And, you do have to take yours with you to D.C.. You could wear it do one of those dinners with the Prez. Talk about the opportunity to spread a message on the national level.

    Lard, keep on opening my eyes.

  4. Jamie said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Great story. The “what do you do” question has spread nationwide but I do remember the first day I saw a wearer of the “The Mask” racing down a DC street. The great network personage obviously aiming for the White house. The method of propulsion was something akin to speed walking as running would have been undignified and walking subject to interruption. The expression indicated superiority, glassy eyed ignorance of surrounding population, and an arrogance that assumed everyone wanted to either speak to or be him. In all respects, he was totally wrong.

    Nice to know you and Craig escaped the influence.

  5. RebelliousRenee said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Thanks for the tale, Lard. I enjoyed reading every word.
    And what an imagination both you and Craig have!

    You’re in my thoughts and prayers. Keep fighting.

  6. bluedevil said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Well, Seanboy, I always wondered what you and Crawford were doing up in the district them years ago… Turns out yall were a small outpost of sanity after all 🙂

  7. Chloe said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Thanks for that story Sean. I hung onto every word.
    ’91 sure doesn’t seem like very long ago, does it?

  8. Ann Hellmuth said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:44 am

    I remember your Washington days well. Two stories in particular – your piece on the White House, Sean, and Craig’s story on which members of Congress got the most legislation passed, which prompted a hilarious phone call from Sen. Robert Byrd. There were dozens more but those two stand out for this voice at the other end of the line in Orlando.

  9. Anna Molly said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:51 am

    Sean ~ What a wonderfully written personal recollection. I can almost see you smiling through your words. As a two-time survivor myself (not brain cancer, but others), I am delighted to see so much optimism shine through. Positive thinking is your best friend. Never lose hope. Best wishes and godspeed.

  10. MadMustard said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:52 am

    The recounting of your Mask tale was masterful and insightful. I will never be able to watch Crawford again without thinking of the condition of his top knot and waiting to see if he is wearing his mocking Mask. Those barstool sessions must have been a delight.

    Take care of yourself, whichever mask is not on the shelf.

  11. mensabear said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Sean, an amazing post… Thanks for letting us take a peek behind the mask, and forcing us to look at which one(s) we might be wearing ourselves!

  12. Coreen said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:58 am


    Thanks for allowing us into your world. You are a wonderful storyteller.

    Please know that you are in my thoughts & prayers.

  13. Divalicias said, on August 22, 2009 at 10:21 am

    LL? Is this you? What a great story and perfect analysis of the Washington ways of self-importance. I see the mask wearers now as they stride around talking on their cell phones as though they’re engaged in conversation with someone Very Important. They’re probably just calling for carry out food to take back to their cubicles.

    A friend of mine, former smoker, while dealing her brain cancer said, “With lung cancer everyone wants to know, ‘Did you smoke?’ With brain cancer nobody ask, ‘Didya think?'”

    Sending wishes and prayers for your complete recovery.

  14. claudine hellmuth said, on August 22, 2009 at 10:33 am

    I remember my time with you and Craig and David so fondly in DC.

    How you helped me find my first DC apartment in the midst of the Oklahoma City Bombing story breaking when I know you didn’t have the time to be helping me but you graciously did even running to Kinko’s to help me copy the lease!

    To our Melrose Monday’s at Craig and David’s with City Lights of China take out. And even watching Babe the Pig – you and Craig firing up the grill proclaiming that we should be cooking pork!


  15. Barbara Hill Bissonnette said, on August 22, 2009 at 10:55 am

    What a treat it is to read great writing!

    I had similar experiences in radio news in the early 80s… two-edged sword when you realize you’ve broken through the brandy ceiling.

    Nice to read about an enduring friendship as well.

    Thanks Sean and may God bless you.

  16. Corey Doan said, on August 22, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Very nice story, Sean!

  17. Lois Grebowski said, on August 22, 2009 at 11:23 am

    I came over from Jamie’s blog. Going to add you to my reader, lurk and comment… I need a good story of hope. And, yes… there’s hope. Today’s miracles are found in modern medicine!


  18. Maxtrue said, on August 22, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Great story Sean. It helps me understand how you and Craig manage to cut through the shit with such humble charm and objectivity.

    May your cells be brave minute men aided by the medical equivalent of a “working” ABL and unmask the beast, -just as your conscience has already done to pretense. Thank you for reminding me of what I should know better than to forget.

    My best wishes for a tolerable weekend Sean and if I go see Halloween II, I’ll think of you.


  19. Nash2.0 said, on August 22, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    When Peter Parker got zapped by radiation, he became Spiderman.

    While you’re lying there being treated, you can think about what super powers you’d like to have. You never know…

  20. ct, Carol said, on August 22, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Didn’t know you were a journalist Lard, just knew you were someone important. Isn’t it ironic that at a time when this country is examining health care reform, you get the opportunity to study it from the inside out and from the point of view of the most important member of it, the consumer? Maybe this assignment came from the big editor in the sky?

  21. Molly BB said, on August 22, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Sean – I’ve always relished ‘my claim to fame’ as being related to CC – Now, I have added another – having dined at Bay Hill with Sean Holton the gifted writer and my new hero. God bless your positive thinking and kudos to your GREAT supportive family! Here’s looking forward to the next ‘Same Time Tomorrow’!

  22. patd said, on August 22, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    lard, wow, great writing! just like being there in the bar with you, could smell the smells, hear the grumbles and giggles. if they take away any more of your noodle, you may turn into the next fitzgerald or faulkner.
    looking forward to more tales of the mask.

  23. Colorado Bob said, on August 22, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Hell of a story LL.

  24. Denise said, on August 22, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    You have reminded me of one of the big reasons I left DC. Well put. Thanks for sharing your stories.

  25. Harry Wessel said, on August 22, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Hi, Sean,
    I know about your skills as an editor, but I’m ashamed to say that I had forgotten what a great writer you are. Your blog posts — terrifically written (and self-edited) — are amazing. Thank you for them, and please keep them up.
    Your faithful reader,

  26. Fairweather said, on August 22, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Hi–I’m sort of on the lunatic fringes of Craig’s Trail Mix and only first heard of you when he mentioned your diagnosis and surgery a few weeks ago.

    I have a friend over on Blogstream who is presently going through a cancer ordeal (his is esophageal plus lymphoma of the bone) and your blogs, despite your very different styles of writing, display toughness, grace under fire, and good humor. You’re doing a wonderful thing by sharing this journey. Thank you.

  27. Travis said, on August 22, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    I’m here from Jamie’s place at Duward Discussion. I’ve just caught up on your previous posts. You are a terrific writer.

    I was fortunate to win my battle with Hodgkins 15 years ago. It was caught early. It took two surgeries and radiation…no chemo. I was never what I’d call sick.

    I think blogs like yours are important witnesses. Your positive attitude is wonderful to see, and so important. I firmly believe that a patient’s attitude is as critical as any other treatment regimen.

    I’m adding your blog to my reader. Best wishes for your treatment and prognosis.

  28. Linda Nelson said, on August 22, 2009 at 6:31 pm


    Was just scanning Huff. Post and saw this. My husband and I have always loved watching and listening to Craig. What a wonderful family you have. What a blessing! I’m a 3 year cancer survivor and my thoughts and prayers are with you. I wish you all the best.

  29. wendy ovaris said, on August 22, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    You are Wonderful!!!! Thanks to Craig’s blog that I ‘met’ you. Warm thoughts and lots of good energy sent to you…… Please, be well. wendy

  30. bethyboo said, on August 22, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Sean …Lard, What a wonderful read! I’m only sorry I wasn’t there to listen attentively as you and Craig picked apart the phonyness of power and the people who have it. I promise I’ve wouldn’t have said anything, hearing the truth from the horses’
    mouths. It seems that your life has taught you to never give up. We never did hear enough from you before so this is a treat to learn more about you. Repeat after me:
    Out, out, damned…thing!

  31. Laura Morland said, on August 22, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Hi! I’m a Facebook friend of Craig Crawford’s (and come by it honestly, since we went to Stetson at the same time … moreover, I’m a faculty brat, and so grew up in DeLand). Craig mentioned your post and so clicked on over to here and found it … and you.

    What a brilliant piece of writing! I’m sorry that central Florida has lost you as a journalist (as I understand from what you wrote), but I think you’ve found another calling here, documenting health care from behind The Mask.

    I’m looking forward to your subsequent posts!

    [A bit of practical advice: keep your skin hydrated while they’re zapping you.]

  32. Jimbo said, on August 23, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Aha – your comments rekindled a memory – of when I first started in business, and observed the “games people play”. My buddies and I joked about the time we might change from being “Players” of the Game and morph into being “Referees” of the Game.

    Hang in there man!

  33. Mark Boeh said, on August 23, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    The mask is accurate, but from one gladiator to another, you may want to think of it as your helmet,

    “I am Gladiator”
    “I am the Gladiator, Sean and I will be triumphant.”

  34. Stockton said, on August 23, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    The “what do you do” question doesn’t only apply to the people in the “biz”…it also applied to me, the wife of someone in the “biz”, and came from people in the “biz”. After all these many years, not one person who bequeathed to me that “thousand yard stare” has bothered to keep in touch with me or care about me… except you. Yes, you wear a mask, but it is the transparent mask of a truly dear friend who I do, and will always cherish.

  35. Leslie said, on August 24, 2009 at 8:25 am


    Thank you for sharing your journey And thanks to Craig for the link. My son traveled the same road you’re on–mask and all. He was first diagnosed in 2001 and was treated with surgery and chemo. He had a recurrence in 2006- this time treated with surgery and radiation. He currently has MRI’s every 6 months We trekked to Yale New Haven Hospital 5 days a week for 6 weeks for John’s treatments. I found the waiting area in the radiation center to be a place where all “masks” were removed. I listened to the hard core biker giving tips to the high school Spanish teacher on how to keep his 12 year old vehicle running for another 10 years, I wathched the wife of a business executive who was being treated, dressed in her usual designer duds, hold an infant who had vomited all over himself while the mom, who was on Medicaid,(everyone discussed their insurance plan openly) went to the parking lot to get clean clothes for the baby.And there was the Yale Professor and the woman who worked cleaning offices in New Haven for the last 35 years doing the crossword puzzle together every day. These are all people that probably would have never crossed paths and would have not had the opportunity to view life through the eyes of someone who would have otherwise been foreign to them.

    Hospital waiting rooms are the great equalizer. I wish you all the best as you continue on your journey. And my best to your family as well.

  36. Tammy Lytle said, on August 24, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Hey Sean –
    I always loved the fact that when you were here you didn’t turn into a political junkie and keep a fresh perspective on DC.
    When you want to come back and poke at the mask, I am happy to throw a party for you to crash.

  37. Linda Nelson said, on August 24, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Hi Sean,

    Hope you have a wonderful week of love and strength. I’m sending good thoughts your way every day. Linda

  38. Kresta said, on February 23, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    hi sean,
    your author description followed by the origami story hooked me…not sure how i happened upon your beautiful blog, other than i was researching thomas merton…i shall be sharing your life with everyone i know. thank you for sharing your life will all of us whom you don’t know. 🙂 kresta

  39. Fern Kott said, on June 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Your blog has totally exceeded my expectations. Since I started off looking through your blog I have gained new information and had previous info reinforced. Let me recommend numerous folks that i know regarding this blog.

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