Despite clear weather at both departure and arrival destination, I spent most of Sunday stranded in a Florida airport before my flight was eventually canceled - the American Airlines fleet, it seems, ranks somewhere between solar power and Courtney Love on the reliability scale. Thus when choosing among sacrificial lambs for this week's Magazine Rack at a bookstore positively reeking of "The Da Vinci Code," I had a single search criteria: that my selection would not piss me off any worse than I already was.
I chose wisely. The May issue of Esquire is not a defining treatise for 21st century manhood, nor is it the service-journalism equivalent of that chimerical big brother who can pass along worldly advice on any number of topics. It is, however, an inventively planned, written, and designed title that doesn't seem to have any grander ambition than to entertain and occasionally inform its readers. Last I checked, that's pretty much the defining mission for any magazine, isn't it?
To be sure, Esquire is nowhere near as wink-wink clever as it purports to be. Listings under "Things a Man Should Not Read" include "the novelization of 'The Chronicles of Riddick,'" which would've been winceworthy last summer, when the movie was in theaters. Too, the magazine tends to pander with its cover choices - in this case, the Desperate Housewife who weighs 89 pounds, as opposed to one of her 104-pound costars.
But just about everything else in Esquire offers something in short supply in mainstream American journalism nowadays: a sense of perspective. Stories are presented with the weight they deserve in a tone appropriate for the subject matter; the writing is mercifully gimmick-free and never contrarian merely for the sake of being contrarian. Again, this isn't brain surgery.
It doesn't hurt, of course, to have columnists like Mike D'Angelo and Chuck Klosterman at your disposal. D'Angelo's snappy argument that we should all boycott the next "Star Wars" flick makes waaaaaay too much sense, while Klosterman's dissection of the real reason that Johnny Carson will be missed ("he was the last universally shared icon of modern life") suggests that he operates on a significantly higher plane than other pop-culture pundits.
The sense-of-perspective thing even extends to the May issue's "Women 2005" centerpiece. At its best, the advice about women in most men's magazines approaches the sophistication of playground banter. But when enlightened males like me (cough, cough) need to learn something about gals, we generally ask one - which is precisely what Esquire does.
"Women 2005" includes a semi-racy survey of 11,000 women in 15 countries, a quiz written by endearingly quirky sex columnist Stacey Grenrock Woods and three essays about three body parts authored by three women. Even when an item in the feature fails, such as a female assistant's overcaffeinated recounting of a sexless flirtation with her male boss, the magazine deserves a totally non-harassing pat on the bottom for doing more than sending out some dork to interview hot chicks in bars.
Other smart twists on the men's-mag formula include a brief history of the blue jean and actual, legitimate, bona fide, seemingly non-ghostwritten celebrity humor from Jerry Stiller and Christa Miller. Even poofy-haired teenybopper magnet John Mayer gets in on the action, offering a take on his travel secrets so glib and clever that I'm willing to withdraw my prior characterization of him as "the Y2K Corey Hart."
As I write this, it's Monday at 2 p.m. and I'm in Chicago, the logical midpoint for any rescheduled-by-dullards New York/Florida odyssey. Probably the loftiest compliment I can bestow upon Esquire is that it offered me 90 solid minutes of diversion, in the process lessening the sting of being treated like an insignificant speck by a company that I will not be patronizing again anytime soon. For anyone - male or female - seeking similar light-minded salvation, I cannot recommend Esquire any more highly.