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April 1, 2010

My family takes April Fool’s Day pretty seriously. As a child, I thought everyone did. I didn’t notice that normal people spent the month of March watching NCAA basketball or going for bike rides; I was busy brainstorming for April 1, preparing gambits that would be a notch above remarkable but just shy of incredible. When I was nine, I told my parents my school had burned down. When I was (actually) driving back from post-Katrina New Orleans, I called my dad to tell him I was dropping out of college and moving into a FEMA trailer with my new sweetheart. Pretending to be my landlord’s lawyer, I threatened to sue my roommate for having loud sex.

But each year, my 85-year-old grandmother is the biggest target. On one hand, this could be perceived as cruelty to my elders. On the other hand, you should see the grin on her face when she retells the stories. Which she does, constantly, to strangers. She clearly enjoys being part of the annual revelry, even if her role is to be duped. One year I told her I was getting married. Another year I told her I was climbing Mount Everest — without a jacket. Then I dragged her to Grand Central Terminal, where my friend Ben pretended to be a StoryCorps employee.

Eventually, she wised up and stopped picking up the phone. She now marks the April 1 box on her calendar with the most counterintuitive instructions a Jewish grandmother can imagine: Don’t talk to your grandson today.

I had to find another way to reach her. My aforementioned friend Ben suggested snail mail.

This is what I sent her:

Cover Letter p. 1

Cover Letter p. 2

Cover Letter p. 3

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Figureheading: The Opposite of Ghostwriting

October 2, 2009

If I write a piece that does not appear under my name, you might call me a ghostwriter. But what about the inverse? What if I don’t write a piece that does appear under my name?

According to the slang I just made up, that would be called figureheading. Which would make me, metaphorically, a wood carving. Or, one-metaphor-removedly, a celebrity taking credit for words I did not write. But I am not a celebrity, and I never asked anyone to be my ghostwriter. So why are two pieces I didn’t write masquerading under my name?

Read more…

More Foster Wallace

May 5, 2009

On May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace—by then recognized as one of America’s best living writers—spoke to the graduating class of Kenyon College. Wallace had earned a reputation as a wily postmodernist, but his address that day was straightforward and sweet. It began this way:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

Last week, the speech was published posthumously as a short book. This Is Water will not be remembered as the pinnacle of David Foster Wallace’s literary career, but it reminds us that, beneath all the virtuosity and above all the footnotes, Wallace was a compassionate humanist. He was not just our generation’s greatest prose stylist; he was one of our greatest spiritual writers as well. Read more…

a broken streetlight. / an unsafe building site.

April 30, 2009

The text below comes from a poster for 311, a New York City government hotline. The poster tries to make 311 sexy (a tall order for a hotline) by using “311” as a transitive verb. They don’t want you to “call 311 to find out where your towed vehicle has gone”–that sounds so pedestrian–rather, you “311 your towed vehicle.” In order to form imperative sentences of this type, on the poster, each of the phrases below was preceded by “311.” I didn’t get this at first, so I just read the text below, objects without predicates, and thought of it as a poem about urban life.


senior services.
your noisy neighbor.
graffiti cleanup.
food assistance.
domestic violence counseling.
a tree request.
summer meals for youth.
recycling and trash collection.
a broken streetlight.
an unsafe building site.
health care for your family.
a pothole on your street.
a dog license.
alternate side parking.
a park.
youth employment.
a heat or hot water complaint.
your towed vehicle.

Maniacal in Minnesota

April 7, 2009

Even in the throes of campaign excitement, chugging along at breakneck speed on the Hope Express, most of us had a few sober moments. During these moments, we realized that not all of Obama’s campaign promises would come to fruition. Even if he was sincere about wanting to fix healthcare or education, his plans might be blocked; or they might be enacted and not work.

Still, at a minimum, we knew that President Obama would be able to do at least a few real, consequential things. He would order the closure of Guantanamo. (Check.) He would bring the troops home. (Um…impending check?) And he would push through a bipartisan bill that would grant free education in exchange for national service. Sure, this one would require congressional approval — but who would oppose an expansion of voluntary public service? Who could possibly launch a PR campaign against AmeriCorps?

I should have known the answer, of course. Who else but the wackiest conservative around, the lady who makes Glenn Beck look like Charlie Rose, Michele Bachmann:

Where is this paranoia coming from? By “philosophical agenda,” does she mean, perhaps, the agenda put forward during the Sermon on the Mount? I am going to stop writing about this before I start getting angry. The point is: this is not a question of competing political ideologies, but of incommensurate versions of reality. When Michele Bachmann looks out the window, or reads the (liberal) news, she simply does not see the world I see.

Nothing But a Party

March 27, 2009

[Originally published in Killing the Buddha]

“You heading to the second line?” the stranger asks. He is standing in the middle of the street, where the dividing line would be if there was one, picking catfish from a Styrofoam box. “Just up there a few blocks. You can hear the music almost.”

I am on my way to the second line, but I don’t answer right away. I have just left New York, and am still following that city’s unspoken code—that any stranger who wants to chat is crazy, or soliciting money, or both.

I have to remind myself: this is New Orleans, where strangers make small talk and eye contact; where “All right” is a greeting; where “How are you?” is more than a greeting; where people are nice to each other for no reason.

“I am going to the second line, actually,” I say. “Are you?”

He spits out a bone. “I’ll walk with you a bit. Can’t go too far, though. Have to watch the museum.” I guess he means the Backstreet Cultural Museum, half a block behind us. As I passed by it I considered going in; but I couldn’t tell if it was a hidden treasure or a scam, some guy trying to charge me $8 to fondle his tchotchkes. (Later, when a New Orleanian suggests I visit that very museum, I ask her which she thinks it is. “Both,” she says, without a pause.)

He walks with me a bit. Asks me if I knew the woman.

He must mean the lady who died. “No. Did you?”

“Oh, sure. Everyone in the Treme knew her. You must not be from around here.”

I am not. I am visiting for a weekend. The wrong weekend, most people would say: the first weekend of Lent, four days after Mardi Gras. The streets are quiet. The French Quarter looks like a living room the morning after a house party: sticky sidewalks instead of sticky floorboards; plastic beads instead of plastic cups. The city feels diffident, not sure what it did last night and afraid to find out.

New Orleans is a deeply Catholic city. Before the storm, 40 percent of the city’s children went to Catholic schools; the city is still split into parishes. Even Ignatius Reilly, main character of A Confederacy of Dunces and the great literary anti-hero of New Orleans, was a grudging Catholic. Reilly disdained all modern institutions—capitalism, democracy, courtship, kinship, even New Orleans itself—but he never renounced the Church.

In a bona fide Sin City like Las Vegas, the hedonism buffet is open year-round. In New Orleans, though, the revelry runs in cycles of indulgence and guilt, delineated by the liturgical calendar. After all, Mardi Gras, that bacchanal of bacchanals, is a Catholic festival, and it ends with a hell of a whimper: forty days of fasting and repentance. This is New Orleans—the country’s biggest party followed by the universe’s biggest buzzkill.

The catfish docent and I part ways, and suddenly here comes the second line, and suddenly I’m swept up in it. Two white horses draw an ornate gharry carriage with the casket inside. The band marches in front, playing those sweet sad dirges everyone knows—”When the Saints Go Marching In,” “This Little Light of Mine”—and we go along with them, in equal scale weighing delight and dole.

Is a jazz funeral really a funeral or a party? Both, I say.

A lady near me wears a torn tank top and no shoes, a cigarette burning in each hand. The first time I look over she’s gyrating wildly, grinding her hips and shouting with primal, aggressive joy; the next moment she’s bent over a parked car, racked with sobs. She might be the sister of the deceased, blind with grief, or she might just be out of her mind. Read more…

P. T. Barnum and Martha Nussbaum

March 25, 2009

Went to see the elephants last night. They were walking across Manhattan in the cold, starting at the Midtown Tunnel at midnight and ending at Madison Square Garden. (They had to get to the Garden to perform in the circus and, as my friend put it, “How else are they gonna get there?”)

Elephants take Manhattan

It all sounded like a great idea around 9:00 pm. When someone asks you if you want to go see the elephants, it seems that yes is the only right answer. But by the time it was 11:30 and time to go, I was having doubts. Then after an hour underground, the Q train lurching, then stopping, the whole time wondering whether I was missing the parade, I picked a mental fight with Del Close: You can’t always say yes!

Off the train and above ground: We had not missed the elephants. We were just in time. The crowd was pressed up against the barricades, brimming with a kind of self-conscious, self-fulfilling enthusiasm. (The logic seemed to be: “This is a childish thing to do, so I will do it with a childlike sense of wonder.”) We were shivering, but every few minutes someone would yell “Whooo! Elephants!” and we would all break into a cheer. The elephants were not here just yet, but they were coming, goddammit.

This is the amazing thing about New York: whatever crazy, self-destructive thing you decide to do, you can take comfort in the fact that hundreds of people will be stupid enough to do it with you.

Read more…


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