My favourite short essays were Go Carolina, Genetic Engineering, You Can’t Kill the Rooster, The Youth in Asia, The Great Leap Forward, Nutcracker.com, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa and 21 Down.
A selection of my favourite passages from the book
- I ran down a list of recent crimes, looking for a conviction that might stick. Setting fire to a reportedly flameproof Halloween costume,
- I liked the idea that a part of one’s body might be thought of as lazy – not thoughtless or hostile, just unwilling to extend itself for the betterment of the team.
- Baking scones and cupcakes for the school janitors, watching Guiding Light with our mothers, collecting rose petals for use in a fragrant potpourri: anything worth doing turned out to be a girl thing.
- I tried to avoid an s sound whenever possible. “Yes,” became “correct,” or a military “affirmative.” “Please,” became “with your kind permission,” and questions were pleaded rather than asked. After a few weeks of what she called “endless pestering” and what I called “repeated badgering,” my mother bought me a pocket thesaurus, which provided me with s-free alternatives to just about everything.
- Plurals presented a considerable problem, but I worked around them as best I could; “rivers,” for example, became either “a river or two” or “many a river.”
- Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities
- Mr. Mancini had a singular talent for making me uncomfortable. He forced me to consider things I’d rather not think about – the sex of my guitar, for instance.
- Beneath my moral outrage was a strong sense of possessiveness, a fury that other people were sinking their hooks into my own personal midget. What did they know about this man?
- I’d always thought of Mister Mancini as a blowhard, a pocket playboy, but watching him dip his hamburger into a sad puddle of mayonnaise, I broadened my view and came to see him as a wee outsider, a misfit whose take-it-or-leave-it attitude had left him all alone. This was a persona I’d been tinkering with myself: the outcast, the rebel. It occurred to me that, with the exception of the guitar, he and I actually had quite a bit in common. We were each a man trapped inside a boy’s body. Each of us was talented in his own way, and we both hated twelve-year-old males, a demographic group second to none in terms of cruelty. All things considered, there was no reason I shouldn’t address him not as a teacher but as an artistic brother.
- MY FATHER ALWAYS STRUCK ME as the sort of man who, under the right circumstances, might have invented the microwave oven or the transistor radio. You wouldn’t seek him out for advice on a personal problem, but he’d be the first one you’d call when the dishwasher broke or someone flushed a hairpiece down your toilet.
- To me, the greatest mystery of science continues to be that a man could father six children who shared absolutely none of his interests.
- We enjoyed swimming, until the mystery of tides was explained in such a way that the ocean seemed nothing more than an enormous saltwater toilet, flushing itself on a sad and predictable basis.
- I’d heard once in school that if a single bird were to transport all the sand, grain by grain, from the eastern seaboard to the west coast of Africa, it would take… I didn’t catch the number of years, preferring to concentrate on the single bird chosen to perform this thankless task.
Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist
- Physically she’d been stitched up more times than the original flag, but mentally nothing seemed to touch her. You could tell Gretchen anything in strict confidence, knowing that five minutes later she would recall nothing but the play of shadows on your face.
- True art was based upon despair, and the important thing was to make yourself and those around you as miserable as possible. Maybe I couldn’t paint or sculpt, but I could work a mood better than anyone I knew. Unfortunately, the school had no accredited sulking program and I dropped out, more despondent than ever.
- Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These are questions for insecure potheads. A speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does is brilliant.
- Speed heats the brain to a full boil, leaving the mouth to function as a fulminating exhaust pipe. I talked until my tongue bled, my jaw gave out, and my throat swelled up in protest.
- It seemed as though I should play hard to get, but after a moment or two of awkward silence, I agreed to do it for what I called “political reasons.” I needed the money for drugs.
- I thought briefly of checking myself into a hospital, but I’d seen what those wards looked like and I’ve always hated having a roommate.
You Can’t Kill the Rooster
- We might not have been the wealthiest people in town, but at least we weren’t one of them.
- The drug laws had changed as well. “No smoking pot” became “no smoking pot in the house,” before it finally petered out to “please don’t smoke any more pot in the living room.”
The Youth in Asia
- When it looked as though one of them had died, our mother arranged the puppy in a casserole dish and popped it in the oven, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. “Oh, keep your shirts on,” she said. “It’s only set on two hundred. I’m not baking anyone, this is just to keep him warm.” The heat revived the sick puppy and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead.
- When finally, full of worms, she collapsed in the ravine beside our house, we reevaluated our mother’s healing powers. The entire animal kingdom was beyond her scope; apparently she could resurrect only the cute dead.
- When she was six months old, Mädchen was hit by a car and killed. Her food was still in the bowl when our father brought home an identical German shepherd, which the same Cindy thoughtfully christened Mädchen II. This tag-team progression was disconcerting, especially to the new dog, which was expected to possess both the knowledge and the personality of her predecessor.
- My father loved the Great Dane for its size, and frequently took her on long, aimless drives, during which she’d stick her heavy, anvil-sized head out the window and leak great quantities of foamy saliva. Other drivers pointed and stared, rolling down their windows to shout, “Hey, you got a saddle for that thing?” When out for a walk there was the inevitable “Are you walking her, or is it the other way ’round?”
- A week after putting her to sleep, I received Neil’s ashes in a forest green can. She’d never expressed any great interest in the outdoors, so I scattered her remains on the carpet and then vacuumed her back up.
- My mother sent a consoling letter along with a check to cover the cost of the cremation. In the left-hand corner, on the line marked MEMO, she’d written, “Pet Burning.” I had it coming.
The Learning Curve
- I’d always hated it when a teacher forced us to invent something on the spot. Aside from the obvious pressure, it seemed that everyone had his or her own little way of doing things, especially when it came to writing. Maybe someone needed a particular kind of lamp or pen or typewriter. In my experience, it was hard to write without your preferred tools, but impossible to write without a cigarette.
- My students had been admitted because they could admirably paint or sculpt or videotape their bodies in exhausting detail, and wasn’t that enough? They told funny, compelling stories about their lives, but committing the details to paper was, for them, a chore rather than an aspiration. The way I saw it, if my students were willing to pretend I was a teacher, the least I could do was return the favor and pretend that they were writers.
The Great Leap Forward
- I’d never devoted much time to envy while living in Chicago, but there it had been possible to rent a good-size apartment and still have enough money left over for a movie or a decent cut of meat. To be broke in New York was to feel a constant, needling sense of failure, as you were regularly confronted by people who had not only more but much, much more.
- In the late afternoon we would often be visited by one or more of the failed Beat poets who always, very coincidentally, seemed to find themselves in the neighborhood. They were known for their famous friendships rather than the work they had produced, but that was enough for Valencia, who collected these men much the same way that her neighbors collected Regency tea caddies or Staffordshire hounds.
- Somewhere along the way she’d got the idea that broke people led richer lives than everybody else, that they were nobler or more intelligent. In an effort to keep me noble, she was paying me less than she’d paid her previous assistant.
- I’d never cared for any of the self-proclaimed Marxists I’d known back in college, but Patrick was different. One look at his teeth, and you could understand his crusade for universal health care. Both his glasses and his smile were held together with duct tape.
- In an effort to impress his latest parole officer, Richie was trying to improve his vocabulary. “I can’t promise I’ll never kill anyone again,” he once said, strapping a refrigerator to his back. “It’s unrealistic to live your life within such strict parameters.”
- I began to change in subtle ways and quickly lost patience with people who owned too many books. What had once seemed an honorable inclination now struck me as a heavy and inconvenient affectation. The conversation wasn’t as sparkling, but I found that I much preferred the stuffed-animal collectors. Boxes of records made me think that LPs should be outlawed or at least limited to five per person, and I soon came to despise the type who packs even her empty shampoo bottles, figuring she’ll sort things out and throw them away once she’s settled into her new place.
- In yesterday’s restaurants it was possible both to visualize and to recognize your meal. There were always subtle differences, but for the most part, a lamb chop tended to maintain its basic shape. That is to say that it looked choplike. It had a handle made of bone and a teardrop of meat hugged by a thin rind of fat. Apparently, though, that was too predictable. Order the modern lamb chop, and it’s likely to look no different than your companion’s order of shackled pompano. The current food is always arranged into a senseless, vertical tower. No longer content to recline, it now reaches for the sky, much like the high-rise buildings lining our city streets.
City of Angels
- That was the root of the problem right there. Visiting Americans will find more warmth in Tehran than they will in New York, a city founded on the principle of Us versus Them. I don’t speak Latin but have always assumed that the city motto translates to either Go Home or We Don’t Like You, Either. Like me, most of the people I knew had moved to New York with the express purpose of escaping Americans such as Bonnie. Fear had worked in our favor until a new mayor began promoting the city as a family theme park. His campaign had worked, and now the Bonnies were arriving in droves, demanding the same hospitality they’d received last month in Orlando.
A Shiner Like a Diamond
- My father has always placed a great deal of importance on his daughters’ physical beauty. It is, to him, their greatest asset, and he monitors their appearance with the intensity of a pimp. What can I say? He was born a long time ago and is convinced that marriage is a woman’s only real shot at happiness. Because it was always assumed that we would lead professional lives, my brother and I were free to grow as plump and ugly as we liked. Our bodies were viewed as mere vehicles, pasty, potbellied machines designed to transport our thoughts from one place to another.
- Following the photo shoot, she wore her bruises to the dry cleaner and the grocery store. Most people nervously looked away, but on the rare occasions someone would ask what happened, my sister would smile as brightly as possible, saying, “I’m in love. Can you believe it? I’m finally, totally in love, and I feel great.”
- I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.
- Call me naive, but I seem to have underestimated the universal desire to sit in a hard plastic chair and stare at a screen until your eyes cross. My father saw it coming, but this was a future that took me completely by surprise.
- Word processors made writing fun. They did not, however, make reading fun, a point made painfully evident by such publications as The Herald Family Tribune and Wossup with the Wexlers!
- The word phobic has its place when properly used, but lately it’s been declawed by the pompous insistence that most animosity is based upon fear rather than loathing.
- Unlike the faint scurry raised by fingers against a plastic computer keyboard, the smack and clatter of a typewriter suggests that you’re actually building something. At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me.
See You Again Yesterday
- living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.
- The French have decided to ignore our self-proclaimed superiority, and this is translated as arrogance. To my knowledge, they’ve never said that they’re better than us; they’ve just never said that we’re the best.
- Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. “Is thems the thoughts of cows?” I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window.
Me Talk Pretty One Day
- My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards. Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak. Before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong. When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf. I knew my fear was getting the best of me when I started wondering why they don’t sell cuts of meat in vending machines.
- Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.
- In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom.
The Tapeworm Is In
- There are only so many times a grown man can listen to The Wind in the Willows, so I was eventually forced to consider the many French tapes given as subtle hints by our neighbors back in Normandy.
Make That a Double
- Having undertaken the study of Hard French, I’ll overhear such requests and glare across the room, thinking, “That’s Mister Steak to you, buddy.” Of all the stumbling blocks inherent in learning this language, the greatest for me is the principle that each noun has a corresponding sex that affects both its articles and its adjectives. Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male and indecisiveness female.
- Nothing in France is free from sexual assignment. I was leafing through the dictionary, trying to complete a homework assignment, when I noticed the French had prescribed genders for the various land masses and natural wonders we Americans had always thought of as sexless, Niagara Falls is feminine and, against all reason, the Grand Canyon is masculine. Georgia and Florida are female, but Montana and Utah are male. New England is a she, while the vast area we call the Midwest is just one big guy.
Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa
- Having protection suggests that you are important. Having that protection paid for by the government is even better, as it suggests your safety is of interest to someone other than yourself.
- Rather than surrender to my bitterness, I have learned to take satisfaction in the life that Hugh has led. His stories have, over time, become my own. I say this with no trace of a kumbaya. There is no spiritual symbiosis; I’m just a petty thief who lifts his memories the same way I’ll take a handful of change left on his dresser. When my own experiences fall short of the mark, I just go out and spend some of his.
- WHEN ASKED “What do we need to learn this for?” any high-school teacher can confidently answer that, regardless of the subject, the knowledge will come in handy once the student hits middle age and starts working crossword puzzles in order to stave off the terrible loneliness.
- Because my former boyfriend was so good-looking, I had always insisted that he must also be stupid, the reason being that it was simply unfair for someone to be blessed with both chiseled features and basic conversational skills. He was, of course, much smarter than I gave him credit for, and he eventually proved his intelligence by breaking up with me.
- The New York Times puzzles grow progressively harder as the week advances, with Monday being the easiest and Saturday requiring the sort of mind that can bend spoons.
- I found myself delighted by genuphobia (the fear of knees), pogonophobia (fear of beards), and keraunothnetophobia (the nineteen-letter word used to identify those who fear the fall of man-made satellites). Reading over the lists, I found myself trying to imagine the support groups for those struggling to overcome their fears of rust or teeth, heredity or string. There would definitely be daytime meetings for the achluophobics (who fear nightfall), and evening get-togethers for the daylight-fearing phengophobics. Those who fear crowds would have to meet one-on-one, and those who fear psychiatry would be forced to find comfort in untrained friends and family members.
The City of Light in the Dark
- Fortunately, going to the movies seems to suddenly qualify as an intellectual accomplishment, on a par with reading a book or devoting time to serious thought. It’s not that the movies have gotten any more strenuous, it’s just that a lot of people are as lazy as I am, and together we’ve agreed to lower the bar.
I Pledge Allegiance to the Bag
- Whenever my government refuses to sign a treaty or decides to throw its weight around in NATO, I become not an American citizen but, rather, America itself, all fifty states and Puerto Rico sitting at the table with gravy on my chin.
- People are often frightened of Parisians, but an American in Paris will find no harsher critic than another American. France isn’t even my country, but there I was, deciding that these people needed to be sent back home, preferably in chains. In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more.
I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed
- We paid our admission and joined the hundred-odd spectators seated on the collapsible bleachers. They were our neighbors, the people we saw while standing in line at the bakery and the hardware store. The mayor breezed by, followed by the postman and the train conductor, and each of them stopped to say hello. While others might find it stifling, I like the storybook quality intrinsic to village life. The butcher, the stonemason, the sheep farmer, and the schoolmarm: it’s as though these figures came in a box along with pint-size storefronts and little stone houses. In a world where everyone is known by their occupations, Hugh and I are consistently referred to as “the Americans,” as if possessing a blue passport was so much work that it left us with no time for anything else. As with the English and the Parisians, we’re the figurines who move into the little stone houses once the tailor flies out the car window or the cabinetmaker has his head chewed off by the teething dog. Sold separately, we are greeted with an equal mix of curiosity, civility, and resignation.
- I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so cheap, but I rationalized it by reminding myself that it wasn’t my fault this person was trapped. I hadn’t told her to go on the ride. The management clearly had no plan for getting her down, but that wasn’t my fault, either. I told myself that my interest was compassionate and that my presence amounted to a demonstration of support. I didn’t know about the others, but I was needed.
- I failed to realize that intelligence tests effectively muck with both your past and your future, clarifying a lifetime of bad choices and setting you up for the inevitability of future failure.
- The Late Show I’M THINKING OF MAKING a little jacket for my clock radio. Nothing fancy or permanent, just something casual it can slip into during the wee hours. I’m not out to match it with the curtains or disguise it to look like something it’s not. The problem is not that the clock radio feels underdressed, the problem is that I cannot bear to watch the numbers advance in the heartless way common to this particular model. Time doesn’t fly – it flaps, the numbers turning on a wheel that operates much like the gears on a stretching rack.
- After prison I publish a novel under an assumed name. The book is Lolita word for word, and I’m allowed to write it because, under the conditions of the fantasy, Vladimir Nabokov never existed. Because it is so magnificent, my book creates a huge stir. Reporters go hunting for the author; when they discover it’s me, I think, Goddamnit, can’t you people find anything better to do? I now have a reputation as both a dignified enigma and a genius, but I don’t want people reading Lolita because I wrote it. My masterpiece is demeaned by their pointless search for a hidden autobiographical subtext, so I give up writing, live off of the money I’ve made from careful stock investments, and quietly spend the rest of my life sleeping with professional football players.
I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing
- Why would a full-grown man place a foreign object into his mouth, especially if it was brown and discovered in a rarely used suitcase?
- The reference to figs was telling. My father hid them until they assumed the consistency of tar, but why did he bother? No one else in the family would have gone anywhere near a fig, regardless of its age. There were never any potato chips tucked into his food vaults, no chocolate bars or marshmallow figurines. The question, asked continually throughout our childhood, was, Who is he hiding these things from? Aside from the usual insects and the well-publicized starving people in India, we failed to see any potential takers.