Authors: Christopher Buckley
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BUT ENOUGH ABOUT YOU
The Nazi of the Quiet Car
Really-Really-Really Top Secret
The Dirt on Dirt
How to Break into the Movies in Only Twelve Years
Into Thin Hair
Supreme Court Calendar
The Origin and Development of the Lobster Bib
A Short History of the Bug Zapper
Scrutiny on the
Good Evening and Good Luck
A Short History of the Billionaire
We Regret the Error
OUT AND ABOUT
Rambles with Maggie
Left. No, Right. No—Straight!
The History of the Hotel Minibar
Two in the Bush
Good Morning, Hanoi
London, Remembrance Day
A Short History of the Hotel Alarm Clock
Small Aircraft Advisory
The New Yorker
Trump: The Inaugural
Mr. Lincoln’s Washington
Get Out the Pitchforks
The Secretary of History
Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong
Kissinger on China
How It Went: Kurt Vonnegut
The New Yorker
You Thieving Pile of Albino Warts!
Reviews in Brief: Diana Books
Yours Ever, Plum
Reviews in Brief: New Lincoln Books
Our Man in Havana
Reagan’s Card File
The Way You Move
Thar He Blows (Again):
The Year of Living Dyingly
LA BELLE FRANCE
A Reusable Feast
Paris to Die For
How Foie Gras Was My Valley
Hangin’ with van Gogh and de Sade in Provence
Zagat Survey: The Louvre
Teach Your Four-Year-Old to Ski
It Is with Regret
As You Go Forward
NASA Astronaut Screening, Revised and Updated
Post-Taliban Afghanistan: A Guide to the Key Players
The Debt of Socrates
After Saddam: A Briefer
The New Japanese SAT
The Higgs boson Particle and You: Q & A
Hoof in Mouth
Thank You for Not Warning Me
How to Write Witty E-mail
What’s a Body to Do?
As I Was Saying to Henry Kissinger
My Entourage Is Bigger Than Your Entourage
Trust No One
The Art of Sacking
I Like to Drink a Martini
You Can Do It!
About Christopher Buckley
Faithful Old Body
Make [the reader] laugh, and he will think you a trivial fellow. But bore him the right way and your reputation is assured.
This irksome quote weighed on me as I cobbled together this collection. I’ll willingly cop to being a trivial fellow, but I can say with a straight face that my goal has never been to bore the reader. Still, Mr. Maugham does have a point, blast him. Maybe I’ve been going about this all wrong. But I’m sixty-one now, so it’s a bit late in the game to be worrying about that.
Some years ago I found myself on a panel with Bruce McCall, Steve Martin, and Wendy Wasserstein, three nontrivial artists well known to Thalia, Muse of Comedy. I forget what exactly our topic was, but it must have had something to do with the business of trying to make people laugh. I do seem to recall that before long we were all whingeing about humor’s second-class status.
The nontrivial P. J. O’Rourke, one of the wittiest and smartest writers in the business, memorably remarked, “Humor sits at the Children’s Table of Literature.” Somewhere among P.J.’s abundant trove of
is his observation that “Anyone can draw a crowd by standing up and shouting, ‘I have cancer!’ But try doing it with forty-five minutes of stand-up.” When P.J. got cancer some years later, I couldn’t resist calling him up to say, “Trying to draw a crowd, are we?” Happily, the cancer is now gone for good, and even without it P.J. continues to draw big crowds.
During the panel discussion, Wendy Wasserstein said that someone had once condescendingly told her that she really ought to try “serious” writing instead of comedy. “I said to him, ‘Think writing funny is easy, do you? Really?
try it.’ ”
Well, only five paragraphs in and already wallowing in self-pity. We just can’t get no respect. It’s an old lament, and sometimes itself comic.
Toward the end of his life, Robert Benchley, one of the twentieth century’s great practitioners of literary humor, became obsessed with the idea of writing something serious. Making people laugh—even to the point of reducing them to tears—was no longer enough for him. He had never wanted to be a mere “funnyman.” (His coinage, I believe, and no compliment.)
Benchley was a keen student of British history. He resolved to write a book on the Queen Anne era of early eighteenth-century Britain, when the Enlightenment was popping up everywhere like spring bluebells. According to his biographer, this would be nothing less than “a new, analytical history.”
Benchley amassed a library of one hundred books on the subject. Periodically, he would seal himself off in a hotel room with his secretary, a former hatcheck girl, to work on his elusive masterwork. (For the purpose of scholarship, not shenanigans, though to be sure Mr. Benchley was no stranger to those.)
His new analytical history did not eventuate. There’s an amusing and telling quote in the biography courtesy of his son Nathaniel Benchley, author of a little novel called
that became the basis for the movie
The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
Nathaniel’s son Peter wrote a monster best seller about a vengeful shark, providing the Benchley dynasty with a trifecta.
Nathaniel notes that his dad was hampered in his quest to write history by a scholarly version of obsessive-compulsive behavior. If he came across some informational lead, he
to follow it, wherever it went. And then had to follow that, wherever
led. And so on. “At dawn he was still awake, the floor littered with books, determinedly reading some passage in a volume totally unrelated to the Queen Anne era.” Lucky for him he lived before the Age of Google.
As for the bottom line: his biographer posits that Benchley’s Scheherazade-style research kept him “from having to confront the fear
that often gnaws at those who find themselves bearing the mantle of humorist—that, when the chips were down, he would find himself unable to write adequately on a serious topic.”
More on that “mantle of humorist” in a moment. Meanwhile, my own theory is that most humorists—to use that awful word—find their way to Thalia’s workshop after discovering themselves incompetent in other, more practical professions. (Cosmetic surgery, personal injury law, gun industry lobbying, etc.)
Benchley’s career as a student at Harvard inclines me to this insight. He had to sit for a final exam in which he was asked to “discuss the arbitration of the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries, protocol, and dragnet and travel procedure as it affects (a) the point of view of the United States and (b) the point of view of Great Britain.”
Benchley stared at the question, then took up his pencil and wrote, “I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem and nothing about the point of view of the United States. Therefore, I shall discuss the question from the point of view of the fish.”
I like to think he got an A, but those Harvard profs can be sticklers.
As to “mantle of humorist.” Mantle seems, gosh, an awfully grand term. In the pages of this book, I cite a
cartoon in which a Washington, D.C., politician scowls at his secretary as she approaches his desk, holding in outstretched arms a folded garment.
“No, no, Miss Clark! I asked you to bring in the Mantle of Greatness, not the Cloak of Secrecy.”
more like it. I doubt Robert Benchley ever thought he was wearing a mantle over his shoulders. He’d have more likely called it a negligee.
As for “humorist” . . . I know a few folks who earn their daily bread by making people laugh, either with word processor or paint brush or on stage, and I can’t remember a one of them ever referring to him or herself as a “humorist.” Why would you? It’s only asking for it.
You’re a humorist? Yeah? Say something humorous.
I’ve never called myself by the odious term, but I have heard these scrotum-tightening words, and shuddered. “Comic,” on the other hand, or “Comedian” are another matter. They’re straightforward job descriptions and in any case hardly apply to me, alas.
“Satirist”? Problematical. As the playwright George S. Kauffman permanently defined it: “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”
is no insult, but it’s a ten-dollar word. Would you put it on your passport application under “Occupation”? On your business card? Tombstone? Perhaps.
Here lies John Q. Jones. Husband. Father. Satirist.
Maybe that’s it: a satirist is a dead humorist—who concentrated on pointing out everyone else’s failings rather than his own. The old
: Latin for fierce indignation. It’s on the gravestone of the greatest satirist of them all, Jonathan Swift. (It should be pointed out, I suppose, that he made
living as a preacher.)
One time before I gave a talk to a sizable audience in the Midwest, the gracious and well-meaning host introduced me as a “say-terist.” He repeated the word several times, which surely had some folks wondering why—on earth—the lecture committee had invited a sex fiend to address them at eleven o’clock in the morning in the civic center. An elderly lady came up to me afterward and sweetly asked how old I was when I first decided that I wanted to be a “say-terist.” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, so I said, “It’s complicated.”
I’ve done a bit of public speaking, too much of it in the service of trying to get people to buy my books. Trust me when I say: You’re truly better off if they don’t introduce you as a “humorist” or “satirist” or any sort of amusing person. Chances are the audience already knows about you. They’re not a flash mob. They didn’t just spontaneously gather in response to some tweet. (I can proudly avouch that my audiences generally do not consist of looters.) So they already know that you’re not Stephen Hawking or Joyce Carol Oates or the author of the hot new analytical history on Queen Anne Style that everyone’s talking about.
I’ve gotten some laughs over the years, but when I lie there wide-awake in bed at three a.m., it’s not the laughs I remember, but the disasters. And there have been those, oh yes. Always—always—there’s that guy or woman sitting in the front row, arms tightly crossed
over the chest. The others might be laughing. Not him. No, no. He’s staring, impassive as the Sphinx, unamused as Queen Victoria. He even looks a bit put out that everyone else seems to be finding it all so darned amusing. I can read this fellow’s thoughts as clearly as I can the giant electronic news crawl in Times Square:
THAT’S NOT FUNNY . . . THAT’S NOT FUNNY, EITHER . . . I’M NOT GOING TO BUY YOUR BOOK . . . ANDY BOROWITZ IS COMING NEXT MONTH . . . I’LL BUY HIS BOOK . . .
FUNNY . . .
You know those “About the Author” paragraphs on the back flap or cover of a book? The paragraphs authors pretend they didn’t write?
Considered one of the funniest, most brilliant, most original
writers of his generation . . .
Right—those. After a half-dozen books, I got bored saying the same thing (there wasn’t much to say to begin with), so for this one, I just made it all up. Among other noteworthy fictional accomplishments, I wrote that I’d been “an advisor to every U.S. president since William Howard Taft.” Why not?
By Day Ten of any book tour, you’re a bit punchy. I was shambling like a sedated mental patient into a studio to do an AM radio drive-time interview. With all due respect to the fine professionals who do these for a living, AM radio drive-time interviews are typically not occasions of Socratic dialogue.
The host was sitting at his console speed-reading the “About the Author” paragraph on the back flap of my book. I knew that this was all he would know about me.
He looked up at me dubiously. “You were an advisor to William Howard Taft?”
“Yes,” I said.
His brows beetled. “So . . . we could talk about that?”
“Sure,” I said.
And we did. I haven’t been asked back on his show, but I have no regrets. It was well worth it.
Book tours have a yin and yang to them. On the one hand, they’re a narcissist’s wet dream. You get to talk about yourself endlessly, again and again, until even you are heartily sick of yourself and your book. On the other hand, they tell you exactly where you fit on the food chain. On that same book tour, I happened to be following in
the slipstream of another author—George Stephanopoulos. George was promoting his number one best seller memoir about his years working for President Clinton. I was promoting a comic novel about the UFO world, which was getting okay-but-mixed reviews.
At every airport along my Trail of Tears, my author escort would greet me, still flushed with excitement. “We just had George Stephanopoulos. You’ve never seen such crowds. We had to move his reading to the coliseum.”
On my first book tour, I arrived one night for my reading at a venerable independent bookstore in Berkeley. It was all new to me and I was pumped and nervous. I needn’t have been, for there was not one single person present. The embarrassed manager excused herself. A few minutes later, four of the fifty seats were suddenly occupied—I couldn’t help but notice—by Hispanic persons. She’d gone into the stockroom and told the staff to go pretend to be my audience. It was very thoughtful of her. One of them even came up afterward and had me sign the book and then pretended to buy it at the cash register.
That was fifteen books ago. There are fewer empty seats now at the readings—but not to worry: there are still seats available for
. Book tours have their strange moments, but it’s at the bookstores that you meet your readers, and I could hug every one of them. I don’t know if George Stephanopoulos feels the same way about his readers, but then it would take him all day to hug everyone in that coliseum. Mine I can get hugged in no time.
But enough about you. Are writers more vain and sensitive—that is, insufferable—than people in other professions? Say, actors or musicians? Doctors, lawyers, architects, imams, hedge fund managers, elected officials, fashion designers, opera singers, models, university professors, submariners, dictators, fighter pilots, terrorists, funeral directors, comedians, spies, baseball players, football players, publicists, policemen, presidents, air traffic controllers, ship captains, plumbers? Buddhist monks?
Over the course of my life I suppose I’ve met or known most of the above types of people. (Actually, meeting a dictator is still
on my bucket list.) So I can say with absolute authority: I have no idea. But it’s probably safe to assert, if not asseverate (see “insufferable,” above), that as a rule, writers tend to come labeled
FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE
. This can variously be cause for amusement, nonamusement, or reaching for the nearest blunt instrument.
As W. H. Auden put it, “No poet or novelist wishes he was the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted.” Auden himself was perhaps a unique case—of justifiable narcissism, if we take his fellow poet Stephen Spender’s word for it. Justifiable, that is, by virtue of utter self-confidence untainted by jealousy.
Spender said of his great friend, “He just thought he was cleverer than anyone else, but without arrogance really . . . He knew exactly what he was doing, and he was totally indifferent to what anyone said about it . . . For instance, when he was so attacked by Randall Jarrell in 1947 he said, ‘He must be in love with me; I can’t think of any other explanation.’ ”
In the pages of this attractively packaged and
reasonably priced book, you’ll come across some writers I’ve personally known or encountered or studied. Joseph Heller and I became pals somewhat improbably after I wrote a respectful but far from glowing review of one of his novels. Joe had a healthy ego, no question. A writer once lamented to him that he would never write a book as good as Heller’s
. Joe replied, “Who has?” Not bad. If Joe had been a narcissist
narcissist, he would never have written me the thank-you note for the unglowing review that inaugurated our friendship.
You’ll also find Ray Bradbury in here. I didn’t know Ray well, but I admired him greatly, not only for his genius as a storyteller, but also for the abundant joy that he brought to the business of writing. His electric zest seemed to act as an ego-jamming device. He so loved writing that it was infectious. And he was generous. He took pleasure in the success of fellow writers, especially younger ones.
Contrast Joe Heller and Ray Bradbury, then, with another writer
who makes a brief appearance in here, Gore Vidal. If Joe Heller was a yellow jacket and Ray Bradbury a bumblebee, Vidal was a black widow spider, dripping venom. Yet you can still purr with guilty delight over his imperishable
: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” And was he not also author of the schadenfreude-perfect remark: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail”? Chuckle, as I do, but rest assured: these were sincere sentiments. He meant it.
I didn’t know him personally, but P. G. Wodehouse appears in these pages. Wodehouse was an anomaly as authors go, on two counts: first, he cheerfully admitted to reading reviews of his books. (Joseph Conrad: “I don’t read my reviews. I measure them.” Noel Coward: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”) Second, Wodehouse was incapable of holding a grudge. Extremely rare in writers.
After Wodehouse made his innocent but ill-advised wartime broadcasts from Berlin while he was an internee, he was mercilessly savaged back home in England. Among the voices howling for his head on a pike was A. A. Milne. And yet after the war Wodehouse made friends with almost all those critics, some of whom had publicly called for him to be tried and hanged for treason. Of Winnie-the-Pooh’s creator, Wodehouse would later write privately, “We were supposed to be quite good friends, but, you know, in a sort of way I think he was a pretty jealous chap. I think he was probably jealous of all other writers. But I loved his stuff. That’s one thing I’m very grateful for: I don’t have to like an awful person to like his stuff.”
Sean O’Casey famously bestowed on Wodehouse the title of “Literature’s performing flea.” P.G. had the wit, to say nothing of grace, to remark, “I believe he meant to be complimentary, for all the performing fleas I have met have impressed me with their sterling artistry and their indefinable something which makes the good trouper.”
You’ll come across Herman Melville in here. (I didn’t know him
either, personally.) His ego, and lack thereof, presents us with a tricky dialectic, as evidenced by his alternately chest-thumping and demure correspondence with his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.
There was nothing demure about Melville’s near-contemporary author Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt and I were great friends, but he never quite forgave me when I began advising William Howard Taft.) In the first volume of his magisterial—a word you don’t get to use very often—biographical trilogy, Edmund Morris provides us with a Zen-perfect instance of egotism reduced to the irreducible “I.” When TR was writing his book
The Rough Riders
in 1898, he splattered the text with so many first-person pronouns that the typesetters at Scribners had to send to the foundry for an extra supply of capital I’s.
Perhaps the best way to get to the bottom of why writers have such bottomless egos is to back up and pose the predicate question: Why do they write in the first place?
There’s a lovely story—in this telling, courtesy of the poet Billy Collins. A friend of his was walking down Madison Avenue with the
icon Roger Angell. A passerby spotted Angell and stopped to tell him how much he admired him and what a terrific writer he was. After moving along, Angell said, “That’s what it’s all about.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s what writing is all about,” Angell said.
“The love of strangers.”
Bingo? But I know a few cranky writers and I believe the
thing they crave is the love of strangers. If you stopped any of them on the street to gush, they’d tell you to f— off.
The notoriously irascible Evelyn Waugh is the standard-setter of this type. His insults of people who were just trying to pay him a compliment are eye-poppers. When a woman at a dinner party gushed to him about how she loved
returned her serve by telling her, “I thought it was good myself, but now that I know that a vulgar, common American woman like yourself admires it, I’m not so sure.”
But then Waugh detested Americans, so we have to cut him some slack. Elsewhere, he put forth his view of the author-reader relationship less caustically: “I do not believe that the expenditure of $2.50 for a book entitles the purchaser to the personal friendship of the author.”
Put Mr. Waugh down as non-craving of stranger-love.
Occasionally—rarely—we come across a writer who comes bracingly clean about motivation. Balzac once gleefully copped to what he hoped fame would bring: “I should like one of these days to be so well known, so popular, so celebrated, so famous, that it would permit me . . . to break wind in society, and society would think it a most natural thing.”
How refreshing it would be to hear a writer of our own age put it just this way. Henry Kissinger, very much a writer as well as a statesman, was surely expressing a cognate sentiment when he said, “The nice thing about being a celebrity is that if you bore people they think it’s their fault.”
This book is dedicated to the memory of my late friend Christopher Hitchens, so it’s apt to look for our answer to the pages of one of his great literary heroes, George Orwell. In Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write,” he adduces “four great motives for writing”:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. . . .
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. . . .
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction . . .
Orwell goes on to tells us that he is by nature a “person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth.” He then adds that the twentieth century, in particular the Spanish Civil War, forced him into “becoming a sort of pamphleteer.”
We use the word
to signify something futuristic, surreal, contradictory, and totalitarian. But
ought also to denote its eponym’s unflinching and unsettling—even ruthless—insistence on the truth. This was a quality that Christopher himself evinced, despite occasionally shattering consequences. So in his memory, then, let Orwell have the last word; or as Christopher would say,
Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.
Flattering, isn’t it? But on the plus side, how many people in other professions get to break wind in society with impunity?
But enough about me. Over to you. This is a book of essays and other pieces, some of them memoirish, written over the last quarter century. That went by quickly, I must say. Kierkegaard is a
philosopher whom I rarely quote and the spelling of whose name I always have to look up. He said that life is best understood backward but must be lived forward. I was originally going to title the book
What Was That About?
I’m still not sure. But with luck, the reader may find it boring in just the right way.
—April 29, 2013
Laughter’s Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley
, by Billy Altman. 1997.
American Literary Anecdotes
, edited by Robert Hendrickson. 1990.
The Writer’s Chapbook
, edited by George Plimpton. 1989.
Fighting Words: Writers Lambast Other Writers
, edited by James Charleton. 1994.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Evelyn Waugh: A Biography
, by Christopher Sykes. 1975.
The Writer’s Quotation Book, A Literary Companion
, edited by James Charleton. 1980.
Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes
, edited by Clifton Fadiman and André Bernard. 2000.
A Collection of Essays by George Orwell
There’s no greater bliss in life than when the plumber eventually comes to unblock your drains. No writer can ever give that sort of pleasure.
Call me Whatever. At eighteen I went to sea, not in Top-Siders, but in steel-toed boots, as a deck boy aboard a Norwegian tramp freighter. My pay was $20 a week, about $100 today. Overtime paid 40 cents an hour, 60 on Sundays. Not much, I know, yet I signed off after six months with $400 in my pocket. My biggest expense was cigarettes ($1 a carton from the tax-free ship’s store; beer was $3 a case). I’ve never since worked harder physically or felt richer. The Hong Kong tattoo cost $7 and is with me still on my right shoulder, a large, fading blue smudge. Of some other shoreside expenses, the less said, the better.
was a phrase I’d always thought romantic, probably due to reading Conrad and Melville. At boarding school I used to stand way out on the ice on Narragansett Bay, far from shore, and watch the big ships make their way through the channel toward open sea. I wanted to go, and finally bound a berth on an orange-painted tramp freighter named MV
. She took me from New York to Charleston, Panama, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Sumatra, Phuket (then still an endless white beach with not one building on it), Penang, Port Swettenham, India, and, as it was still called then, Ceylon.
The final leg—Colombo to New York, around the Cape of Good Hope—was thirty-three days, longer than expected owing to a Force 12 gale in the South Atlantic. In such seas, the ship’s autopilot cannot function; the steering has to be done manually. I took my turns at the helm in a state of barely controlled panic at the thought that thirty-one lives depended on my ability to steer a shuddering, heaving 520-foot ship through mountainous seas. When the next man relieved me, my hands shook so that I couldn’t light a cigarette. Even some of the older men, who’d seen everything in their time, were impressed by this storm. Arvid winked at me. “Maybe ve sink, eh?”
They were Norwegian mostly, a few Germans and Danskers. The mess crews were Chinese. The one in charge of waking us for breakfast did so by going down the corridor, banging on our doors and shouting, “Eggah!” It took me a few days to decipher. Eggs. Breakfast.
We carried all kinds of cargo: a police car, penicillin, Dewar’s whisky, toilets, handguns, lumber, Ping-Pong balls, IBM data cards. A giant crate of them slipped out of the crane strap and split open on the deck, just as we were making ready to depart San Francisco. A jillion IBM data cards, sufficient to figure out
E = mc
. As deckboy it fell to me to sweep them into the Pacific as the Golden Gate Bridge receded. In our modern era of recycling, this would constitute a crime worthy of being tried at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
The crossing to Manila took three weeks. I didn’t set foot onshore there until four days after we landed. As the youngest man, I drew consecutive cargo-hold watch duty. My job was to prevent the stevedores from stealing, a function I performed with spectacular lack of efficiency. They loved me, the stevedores.
At one point I’d been awake for seventy-two hours when a huge crate slipped its straps and plunged fifty feet to the deck. Out spilled an improbable thing: five thousand copies of
The Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant
intended for Manila’s public schools.
The stevedores were confused as to whether the books were worth stealing and turned to me, their new best friend, for guidance. I was beyond caring. I told them, “Well, it
a good book.”
At sea in those latitudes, the temperature on the ship’s steel decks might hit 115 degrees. During my lunch break, I’d climb down the long ladder that led to the bottom-most reefer (refrigerated) hold, where it was pleasantly frigid and dark. Better still, there were hillocks of Oregon Red Delicious apples—I mean, mountains of them. I’d sit on top of a mound and munch away like a chipmunk in paradise. One day I consumed eight apples and emerged belching back into the heat and light to pick up my hydraulic jackhammer and resume chipping away at decades of rust and paint.
I remember standing in the crow’s nest as we entered the misty
Panama Canal, and the queer sensation as the 4,000-ton ship rose higher and higher inside the lock. I remember dawn coming up over the Strait of Malacca; ragamuffin kids on the dock in Sumatra laughing as they pelted us with bananas; collecting dead flying fish off the deck and bringing them to our kindly, fat, toothless Danish cook to fry up for breakfast. I remember sailing into Hong Kong’s harbor and seeing my first junk; steaming upriver toward Bangkok, watching the sun rise and set fire to the gold-leafed pagoda roofs rising above the jungle canopy; climbing off the stern down a wriggly rope ladder into a sampan, and paddling for life across the commerce-mad river into the jungle, where it was quiet and then suddenly loud with monkey chatter and bird shriek. I remember moonlight on palm fronds. I remember it all.
The Atlantic Monthly
, December 2010
One year and many dollars ago, I decided to move back to the house I grew up in. I don’t have statistics for how many Americans are doing this, but it’s quite possible, in this economy, that even some recent college grads are moving back in with the ’rents. It’s also possible that for some parents, the words “Mom! Dad! I’m home!” no longer have quite the same heartwarming effect they once did.
I hadn’t lived in the house since I was thirteen, before I went off to boarding school. That was in 1966, about the time I used to pedal my bike into town to buy the latest Beatles 45. So it’s been awhile, but I can still summon a memory for every square foot of the house and
grounds. The tree my friend Danny and I used to climb up to smoke cigarettes; the place on the beach where the seven-foot shark went after me; the living room where I burst into the grown-ups’ cocktail hour one day, age ten, to announce, “President Kennedy has just blockaded Cuba.” Never since have I caused conversation to come to such a screeching halt.
My original plan, after the last of my parents had checked out and moved, so to speak, to the Big Upstairs, was to hold my nose and spend whatever it took and put it on the market. (Did I say “market”? Sorry, just going for an easy laugh.) The brokers who bothered to return my calls came, looked around, and, as if reading off an identical script, said, “Nice bones, but it’s very
The house had almost burned to the ground fifteen years before. My mother, a lady of excellent taste, had used the occasion to redecorate along a color spectrum ranging from dark chocolate to milk chocolate. It looked great, but you needed a flashlight to find your way around even during daylight hours. There are probably still weekend guests from the 1990s wandering around lost, looking like Gollum, going,
It finally dawned on me that women of a certain age—Mum was then in her late sixties—aren’t especially keen on bright ambient light.
So it was that I found myself on my hands and knees with Danny, crawling around the floor with paint chips. I make no claim to knowing anything about decor. My only aim was to brighten and lighten for the real estate agents.
“Well,” I said to Danny, “let’s start with white. How wrong can you go with white?”
It turns out that there are many, many versions of white. Danny and I fanned through Colonial White, Egg White, White Out, White Nights, Snow White, White Flight, Perry White, Teddy White, E. B. White, and Hast Seen the White Whale? Somewhere out there amid the amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties and fruited plain, a dedicated group of Americans are working day and night to come up with four thousand different names for beige. If Isaac Newton had gotten his hands on a paint-chip wheel, the rainbow would consist of the following colors: Better Red Than Dead, William of
Orange, Lemon Tree Very Pretty, How Green Is My Valley, Danube Blue, Mood Indigo, and Violet Hush.
Danny and I finally settled on Ostrich Shell. Your basic off-white, but with a more exotic name.
I’d been told—rather, warned—that when you paint one room, it will look nice but will make the room next to it look as if raccoons have been living in it for the past decade. Indeed, this was the case. So we had to paint
room too, which made the room next to it look like the raccoons had been using it as well for their nefarious raccoony purposes. The Domino Effect. So we ended up doing all the rooms.
Which provided another teachable moment, because if you make the inside look new, then the outside will look like the House of Usher. So the outside got painted, too. Then the basement. Why the basement, you ask? Well, if the upstairs and outside look nice, you can’t have a basement that looks like Abu Ghraib. The new basement is now bright off-white, or Crème de la Crème or Milk of Magnesia. Whatever. Now when guests go down into it, they no longer expect someone to leap out, put a hood over their head and waterboard them.
After it was all finished, I looked at it and thought,
Not bad. A person could live here.
Danny ventured, “Your mom would be proud.”
I considered. She was a woman of definite opinions, my mother.
“It’s possible,” I said. “It’s also possible that she’s going to appear at the top of the staircase in a nightgown, holding a candelabrum and pointing a finger at me, and moan, “
When I go downstairs for a glass of milk in the middle of the night, I turn all the hall lights on. But it feels like home again. And years from now, when my children are looking at these walls, scratching their heads and looking at paint chips, it’ll be me on the landing, in my boxers—a truly frightening sight—moaning, “Magenta Dream? You
The Atlantic Monthly
, January 2011
I live on a train. A sad thing to admit, but there it is. It’s a nice train, I’ll say that much. It’s called the Acela, a name meant to denote swiftness as well as “costs more than our other trains.” It plies between Washington and Boston. My portion of the silver rails lies between Washington and New York.
I generally inhabit the car designated the “Quiet Car.” Good old Amtrak, in its wisdom, finally decided, many, many years after the advent of the cellular age, to designate one car out of six for passengers who, oddly, prefer not to be unwilling bystanders at conversations in which they play no part. How my heart used to sink, in the early days, when the passenger next to me would lift from his briefcase a battery pack the size of a cinder block, attach it to his prototype cell phone, and bark, “CHARLEY, CAN YOU HEAR ME?
NOW CAN YOU HEAR ME? GREAT! OKAY—LET’S RUN THE NUMS!
The Quiet Car does not hide its light under a bushel. No. Prominent, explicit signs hang from the ceiling at five-foot intervals. They declare, unequivocally, that
NO CELL PHONES ARE PERMITTED
and that conversation must be kept to a minimum and in hushed tones. In addition to this copious and ostentatious signage, the conductor usually announces over the p.a. system in a stentorian voice, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, IF YOU CAN HEAR THIS ANNOUNCEMENT, YOU ARE SEATED IN THE
. NO CELL PHONES ARE PERMITTED IN THE
AND ALL CONVERSATIONS MUST BE CONDUCTED [pun intended, I wonder?] IN A