It's November 2011, and I am the most controversial parent in America by virtue of a short, obscene, fake children's book by the name of Go the Fuck to Sleep.
It's 14 stanzas long - about 400 words, many of them repeated more than once - and I wrote it in 39 minutes with no pants on.
Now, I'm a literary novelist by trade, so the manner in which this particular creation of mine ascended into the zeitgeist was perplexing to say the least. All I was trying to do in this book was simply capture the interior monologue of a parent attempting to put a small child to bed.
My daughter, Vivien - my beautiful, brilliant, amazing daughter, Vivien - was two and a half at the time, and sleeping was not high on her list of priorities. I would sometimes be in her room for two, two and a half hours. This gets tedious after a while.
And I just wanted to capture the paradox that on one hand you can love a kid to death, and on the other hand be so desperate to get out of that room after the first hour that, you know, if Don Corleone walked in the room and was like, "I'll put the child to bed, but you may have to do a service for me one day, and this day may never come..." you'd be like, "Whatever, Don Corleone, just take this baby. We'll work the details out later."
So I read the book for the first time in public at a museum in Philadelphia, in late April, six months before the book was supposed to be published. It was part of an evening of 10 minute performances. There were about 50 of them, and I went on last, after a 94-year-old tap dancer. And you really never want to follow a 94-year-old, you know what I mean? Not on the highway, not onstage - just never.
I get up there, and I read the book to two hundred people, and the response is good, but I don't think much of it.
I go home, I go to sleep, and when I wake up the next morning, Go the Fuck to Sleep is ranked 125th on Amazon.
Now, as a literary writer, I didn't even know they made numbers that low. And by the end of the week, the book has shot up to number one.
I don't want to get overly technical here, but the book does not exist. And is not going to exist for some months. So we very quickly rush it toward production, with the hope of getting it out into the world by Father's Day.
Meanwhile, however, a PDF of the book leaks and starts ricocheting around the Internet, and lands in hundreds of thousands of people's mailboxes.
We had put this PDF together because we wanted to send it to booksellers. We thought it might be something of an uphill battle getting them to stock, much less support, a book called Go the Fuck to Sleep.
So hundreds of thousands of people are getting the book for free, and we're panicking. We're thinking that we're not gonna sell a single book.
Luckily for us, it's bad form to show up at a baby shower with a low-resolution, stapled-together PDF that you printed out off the Internet and be like, "Here, we love you so much, it's such a wonderful time in your life."
But things start going crazy. I notice that a woman in Australia has posted the entire book as a Facebook album, and all this traffic is going to her Facebook page.
So I write her an email, and I'm like, "Thank you for your enthusiasm, but the book hasn't come out yet. We'd like to sell a couple of books when it does eventually get published. So please take this down."
And she said, "I'll take it down if you want, but I want you to know that seven hundred people have contacted me since yesterday asking where they can buy the book, and I'm sending them to Amazon."
I'm like, "Please. Ignore my previous email."
So we weather the storm, and the book comes out, and it debuts at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. Samuel Jackson reads the audio book, probably his best work since Pulp Fiction.
And all of this craziness is just unending. There's a group called Family First New Zealand that wants to ban the book. Their press release was amazing. I have it framed in my office. It said, "While this book may be harmless, and even amusing, in the hands of normal, well-adjusted parents, it could pose a real danger to children in the hands of maladjusted, dysfunctional parents."
The same, of course, could be said of, like, a spoon. They didn't really catch much momentum on the boycott.
But the weirdest thing of all for me is that I'm thrown into a crisis, because suddenly - and inexplicably - I'm being positioned as a parenting expert. I'm getting emails from people thanking me for saving their marriages, and from therapists saying they bought the book in bulk and handed it out to their freaked-out young-parent clients. And also from people who are furious and irate and saying things like, "I would never read this book to a child."
It would take a very specific blend of literacy and illiteracy to mistakenly read this book to a child. I mean, it does say "Fuck" on the cover.
At the time the publishing industry is in free fall, my visiting professorship has just ended, and I'm on my way back to California and my mortgage. So I feel like I have to ride the gravy train, and if I'm gonna be a fake parenting expert and feed my family, that was fine with me. I'd do it.
But because all of the publicity and the rigmarole around this book, I'm actually not spending much time at all with my child. So not only do I feel like I'm not a parenting expert, I feel like I might not even be a decent parent. I'm on the road all the time. When I am home, I'm on the phone eight, ten hours a day, answering the same five questions from media around the world.
So that was my state of mind when I was asked to host a fundraiser for Boston Children's Hospital that was being held in Los Angeles, counterintuitively. They offered to fly me and my family to Los Angeles for the weekend, and put us up in a hotel where John Wayne had once kept a cow. They were gonna give away copies of the book, and all I had to do was shake hands and sign books and imbibe alcoholic beverages.
It should tell you something about where I was at, that an evening spent hobnobbing with rich, drunken Los Angelenos sounded like a vacation. So I say, "Cool," and we go to L.A.
I get to the fundraiser, at which point I find out that I am cohosting this event with another controversial luminary of parenting, Dr Richard Ferber. For those who don't know, Dr Ferber is the author of a book called The Ferber Method, which is a sleep-training concept.
I haven't read the book, but I'll try to summarise it for you. In essence, Dr Ferber's method stipulates that if your child is crying, you ignore that child. You let them "cry it out" thus teaching them to self-soothe. And also that the world is a cold, horrible place, filled with people who only pretend to love them.
By contrast, what we were practicing with Vivien is called "attachment parenting." Attachment parenting dictates than when your child makes a peep, a whimper, the slightest sound, you rush into their room, grab them, cradle them in your arms, and tell them that you love them.
Thus ensuring that the child will sleep in your bed until she leaves for college. Or in some cases, grad school.
So I wasn't really sure how this fundraiser was gonna go. But I meet Dr Ferber, and he's a nice, avuncular guy. We have a nice chat. And then the fundraiser commences, and I begin to drink.
Dr Ferber's role, however, is a little more involved than mine. At a moment when inebriation has settled heavily on the crowd, Dr Ferber pulls down a screen and begins to give a lengthy, highly detailed slide show about how to put a baby to sleep.
The problem is that he and I are probably the only people here who've ever put a baby to sleep, because the rest of these people have nannies who do that. So nobody's really interested.
The highlight of the slide show comes when a picture of me from Go the Fuck to Sleep flashes on the screen.
It's me sneaking out of a child's room, and Dr Ferber's like, "This, right here, this is what you should never do. This is completely wrong." I'm like, Dr Ferber just threw me under the sleep-training bus. Everybody turns to look at me, and I just keep drinking.
I go back to my hotel room, and I wake up the next morning, and I find in my inbox an email from Dr Richard Ferber. The subject heading of the email is "Why didn't you tell me that I know you?" I'm like, Dr Ferber has lost his mind.
Then I opened the email, and my mind is blown, because it turns out that unbeknownst to me, I went to summer camp with Dr Ferber's son, the unforgettably named Thad Ferber. He and I were friends and campmates, until I got kicked out of the camp. He lived two towns over from me, which at thirteen means you only see that dude like once a year.
But in 1990 the play date I had with Thad Ferber consisted of a trip to Tower Records on Newbury Street in Boston to buy rap records. I was a DJ and an emcee, and this is what I did.
We get to Tower Records and find that the rap section is being guarded by a life-size cardboard cutout of MC Hammer, who was himself a very controversial figure in 1990 - not considered to be the most authentic or talented dude by hard-core hip-hoppers like myself.
So naturally I rip the head off of the cardboard cutout and stuff it into my jacket - not in an act of theft, as much as decapitation. And as I attempt to sneak out of Tower Records, Thad Ferber and I are accosted and captured by Tower Records security. Thad Ferber - guilty only by association - and I are taken down into the dungeon, deep in the bowels of Tower Records, where we are seated, informed that the cardboard cutout of MC Hammer is worth five thousand dollars, which seems spurious in retrospect, and told that we will be released only into police or parental custody.
Now, this was not my first rodeo. I got in trouble all the time. This was like a regular Tuesday for me. So I gave the Tower Records police a phone number that I had memorised for occasions such as this, one that I knew just rang and rang and rang, and nobody ever picked up, and there was no answering machine. This was an incredibly important phone number for me to have at 13.
And it would have worked. They would have tried it three times, gotten bored, and let us go.
Thad Ferber, however, had never been to the rodeo. So he gave them him his actual phone number, and in short order Dr Richard Ferber shows up at Tower Records. I am released into his custody, somehow, and he drives me home.
Oh, and Thad Ferber and I are banned for life from Tower Records. Which turned out to be their life, not mine, because they're defunct now.
All this came flooding back to me as I read the email. And it was a great weight off my shoulders, because clearly, even the great and powerful Dr Richard Ferber is not so infallible as a parent, in that he had let his kid hang out with me.
I start to think that maybe all of the worrying I've been doing is unnecessary. Maybe I am as much of and as little of a parenting expert as anybody else who's ever had a child.
Maybe I'm not actually faking this. Or maybe we're all faking this equally. And maybe I do know a couple of things. Like keep your sense of humour at all costs. Or embrace the absurdity of the situations in which you find yourself.
Or even, realise that there are worse things than spending two hours trapped in a room with the person you love most in the world.
I mean, you could be in the basement of a Tower Records. Or listening to a slide show by Dr Ferber.
So with a sense of profound relief, I packed up my family. And for what felt like the first time in a very, very long time, we went home.
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