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Adulthood

By Summer Block

Humor

LINUS_4F

Extended adolescence is all the rage these days. Or extended childhood, or extended young adulthood, depending on whether your particular clock stopped during Star Wars: Episode III or Star Wars: Episode I.

I stood on the side of a suburban swimming pool in a sweltering Texas backyard in a crowd of other parents, hefted my three-year-old daughter up on to my hip as she begged and wept, pried her tiny pleading fingers from my neck, and then threw her, forcefully, in a high, athletic arc, into the water.

Some of the other parents smiled approvingly, others clapped and cheered, and a few looked away with the strained-neutral expressions of people consciously deciding to ignore a present tragedy.

People Notice

By Summer Block

Humor

I was at work on Monday morning, an editorial assistant in an office in downtown San Francisco, and I wasn’t clean. I had spent the weekend on an impromptu road trip that started with digging fresh-baked pies out of a bakery dumpster and ended with sleeping in a Mitsubishi Diamante on the side of the Interstate 5 and now I was sitting in my cubicle wearing the same outfit I had been wearing when I left the office on Friday afternoon.

“No one will notice,” I told myself, “if you skip one shower.”

One of the more unpleasant parts of meeting new people is explaining what I do – or don’t do – during the work week.  I have always dreaded being asked what I do for a living.  Saying “I am a writer” is too mortifying for words, and what’s more, in Los Angeles, I have to further explain that no, I’m not a screenwriter.  (Stage director, train engineer, doctor of philosophy – someday I’ll tell my children to never take a job that requires them to constantly say, “No, not that kind.”) 

No one knows what writers do – hell, I don’t even know what writers do.  In the last decade I have written corporate memos, software instruction manuals, trivia questions, travel guides, and crafting how-tos.  I’d call myself a hack, but I think hacks get paid better. So when someone asks me what I write I try to answer as vaguely as possible.  These days I mostly do “creative” writing, a phrase which puts listeners in mind of grade school essays written on that paper with the two solid lines and the dotted line in the middle, but when pressed I usually say that I write comedy and then immediately regret saying that.

Now that I work only part-time and stay home with my two children, I have to further explain that my job is to write comedy for free only some of the time.  If there’s anything that makes you sound lazier than that, I’d like to hear it.  The very worst part about working from home (besides the lack of free coffee) is that no one will ever believe you are actually working.  “Working from home” is treated as a polite euphemism for “sleeping all day,” when in fact trying to meet a deadline while locked in a house with a two-year-old and a three-month-old is like trying to pick your handcuff lock from the inside of a submerged steamer trunk. 

Judging from their comments, what people envy most about those who work from home is that they can “wear their pajamas all day,” a lifestyle boon we share with infants, in-patients, and, I suppose, professional pajama models. Personally I associate wearing pajamas past noon with times of great emotional or intestinal distress, and am more likely instead to put on something much too nice and then trump up some flimsy excuse for wearing it (Oil change? That calls for pearls!) but then maybe I’m just too spoiled from sleeping all day to appreciate the freedom that comes from dressing like your dog just died.

I used to work in a fancy office with elevators and cubicles and glass-walled conference rooms and people you see for years without ever saying hi to, and I felt very grand.  But often these jobs were in publishing or in technical writing, where the work required access to expensive printers and dual-monitor computer schemes, whereas now all my job requires is a laptop, an internet connection, and a total lack of human dignity.  Best of all, I had coworkers, people with whom and about whom to gossip, people you could eat lunch with and join for happy hour and invite to your home for a dinner party and watch mix awkwardly with your other friends. 

One might ask why I choose to work from home when I clearly miss the old days of fancy clothes and free Nature Valley granola bars.  The reason is simply that it costs more to pay for full-time daycare than I can earn as a writer, which anyone who has both read my writing and met my children will agree is totally fair – giving the world a 500-word musing on “What If Chaucer Wrote For Gawker?” simply does not equal the effort of cleaning 16 ounces of Greek yogurt out of my daughter’s hair.

Like many freelancers, I’ve combated the pajama-wearing blues by taking my laptop on the road.  These days I do most of my work from coffee shops.  Working at a coffee shop keeps me on my toes: I can’t afford to eat as many pastries as I would at home; I’m too afraid of random violence to sleep in public; and I feel like people notice if I go a long time without typing something.  Sometimes I’ll type something, lean back, and murmur approvingly, just like I used to do back in the old cubicle.  Occasionally I’ll laugh quietly to myself, shake my head in fond disbelief, and give a little shrug that says, “Can you believe the stuff she comes up with?”  The “she” in that sentence is me. 

Someday when my children are all grown up I’ll be back to water cooler gossip and structured waist bands.  After years of working from home, I can’t wait to jam the printer and chat in the break room, but I don’t know if I’m responsible enough anymore to be around all that free coffee.

Fishing

By Summer Block

Humor

In third grade, my schoolteacher told me that I was ugly, but that with any luck I’d look better when I grew up. When I tell that story now, people assume I am looking for sympathy, but in fact, even at the time, I appreciated her honesty. I knew I was a very weird-looking child and no number of sympathetic clucks from adults would have convinced me otherwise. What I wanted to hear were practical steps for improving my present appearance or barring that, at least hard-nosed realism coupled with hope for the future. And as an adult I am in fact much less weird-looking than I was as a child, so my teacher was right.

A culture of coddling is of little help to an eight-year-old who has to wait another eight years to grow into her nose, but this type of “oh no, I think you’re the pretty one!” back and forth would become only more of a fixture in junior high and high school, where “fishing,” as we called it, was the norm. “I look so fat today!” some slight preteen would moan, and it was the sworn duty of us all to insist that no, no, she was not at all fat, if anything we were the fat ones. And of course the prettier and bolder and more confident the fisherman, the more willing she was to throw that rod out there.

The problem with this expectation of “fishing” is that it makes it difficult to honestly discuss my many very real inadequacies. As soon as you say you are terrible at parallel parking or putting on eye shadow or cooking rice, someone wants to grab that bait, but seriously, I am not fishing. Nor would I ever. Because I am really, really terrible at fishing.

In fact, I am truly, uniquely bad at doing a host of things, including things that virtually everyone else I know can do readily. For example, I’m thirty-one years old and I don’t know how to ride a bike. I suppose technically I have managed at times to bike as far as a single city block, but slowly, unsteadily, and certainly neither calmly nor gracefully. I didn’t learn to swim until I was ten; I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty-four, and in both cases it shows. At this rate, I had better live to be at least 120 if I ever want to be a normal, functioning person. I also can’t spit, whistle, or skip stones, making me something like the anti-Tom Sawyer. I am truly, colossally, show-stoppingly bad at sports of all kinds. The kind of bad that makes people want to pull out their iPhones and start uploading to Fail Blog. Schooled in the polite demurral, a friend may assure me that no, really, I certainly could learn to snowboard if I wanted to, but that person has likely never seen me hop madly off a ski lift face-first like a little broken sparrow on its last trip down to earth.

Nor are my failings limited to athletic ones. I am so bad at following the plots of movies that I will read plot summaries on IMDB while watching the film and still not understand what’s happening, even on repeat viewings. I can’t play chess, poker, or any card games. When someone begins to explain the rules of a card game to me, it’s like a part of my mind just turns off and all I hear is the dull, content-less drone of their voice. In college, no fewer than four people tried to teach me how to play bridge, but some people just cannot learn. My skills at estimation, of volume, duration, capacity, or extension, are bad enough to shake your belief in my fundamental neurological soundness. If there are two thousand jelly beans in that jar, I’m as likely to guess one hundred. Or a million. Or ten.

It is for this reason that I simply cannot imagine needing to be falsely modest. Who has time to make up additional failings? In fact, I am more than delighted to trumpet my humble accomplishments wherever I find them. I have very nice handwriting, I’m quite good at gluing broken ceramic objects back together, and I have an unmatched memory for song lyrics. Trust me: if I’m good at something, I’ll let you know. So when I tell you I can’t snowboard, there’s no need to shake your head and protest. I really can’t snowboard. Be like my third grade teacher and accept that I have some natural limitations and perhaps we can find a way to work around them. Considering watching “Inception” tonight? How about we just glue things together instead? Or, like my optimistic teacher, we can just hope that I grow out of it all, and I might, if I’m not killed falling off a ski lift first.


This is an unconventional love story.  It all started when I sat down for coffee on the bougainvillea-ensconced patio of the perfectly restored 1906 Craftsman home of my editor and friend Estelle Serna.  As usually happens, our conversation quickly turned to real estate.

“So, I’m back on the market again,” I told her.

“Again?” she said.

“I’ve been looking at a few places with a new agent.  But I haven’t found anything good.”

“Are there any houses you’re even considering?”

“Not really.  There was one that was okay, but it sat directly underneath the 2/210 overpass.”

“That doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, Summer,” Estelle said.  “When I bought this house, the bougainvillea was ragged.  How much was this house?”

“$620,000,” I said.

“That’s not bad!”

“Yeah, but I just don’t feel that spark.  I’m waiting for The One.”

“Just buy it, Summer,” Estelle said with a weary sigh.

I had been having these conversations a lot since I turned 40, on landscaped patios all over Los Angeles, but somehow, they never really sunk in.  Even as the market hit bottom and started to rebound again, I always thought I had more time.  The perfect house was always on the next block: The One.  In the meantime, I spent my weekends driving from open house to open house and my evenings sitting under the single flickering light bulb in my 200-square foot studio apartment, loading and reloading Redfin.com.  Sure, I wanted to settle down, but I didn’t want to settle.  Then I read a statistic that said that a 40-year-old woman with an annual salary of $75,000 and a credit score of 650 is two hundred times more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than she is to find a suitable home in Los Angeles.

“It’s time to adjust your list,” Estelle told me.

Here was my list five years ago when I began my search for The One:

Four bedroom, two bath
Large lot
Two-car garage
Within walking distance of a Bristol Farms
Solar water heater
Granite countertops
In-ground pool
Outdoor kitchen
Original moulding
Tenuous connection to B-list celebrity
Mature quince trees
Wood-burning fireplace
View of the Hollywood Hills and/or Pacific Ocean (preferably both)
Kiln

Was this too much to ask?  Could this be the reason that 78% of Americans born between 1965 and 1980 will die of radon poisoning while lying face-down on a mildewed futon mattress in a condemned tenement apartment building with low ceilings and Formica countertops and no one to mourn them?

All I wanted to do was curl up with a copy of Dwell magazine and watch the sun set over my salt-water infinity pool – was that too much to ask?

At first, house-hunting was fun.  I looked forward to spending each weekend out with my real estate agent, climbing over trash piles and peering through wire-reinforced glass windows, chatting happily about “potential.”  But at a certain point, I felt burned out, tired of the drop-ceilings and the feral pigs and the tacky overhead lighting.

Finally, the statistics I had read began to hit home.  Would I be one of the 1 in 3 middle-aged women who tried to buy a house for ten years, gave up, went crazy, and wound up digging a foxhole beside a freeway embankment, then carpeting it over with Flor tiles?

After a particularly harrowing day of house-hunting, I caught up with my good friend, marionette restorationist Randall Hitch, for glasses of port on the glazed terracotta terrace of his Moroccan-style villa overlooking the hedge maze and the koi pond.  He told me his house had just been listed in the National Registry of Historic Places after it was discovered that deleted scenes from “Chinatown” were once stored in a utility trailer parked in the alleyway behind his home.  I told him about the last house I had rejected.

“It was nice, roomy, in a good neighborhood, in my price range, but it was sort of pre-fab-looking and also it didn’t have a floor.”

“There are a lot of ways to personalize a pre-fab home, Summer,” Randall said.

“I know.  But I mean, there was no floor at all.  Just uncovered joists.”

“Summer, you’re too picky. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Do you think this house was in perfect condition the day I found it?  Of course not!  I had to tear out wall-to-wall carpet in the back hallway.  Beige wall-to-wall carpet.  But in the end, what matters is that I have a place to call home, a place to love, a place to store 1700-square feet of early nineteenth-century Persian art.”

I gazed out at the ocean, the radiant floor heating warming the soles of my shoes.

“I just feel like I could do better,” I said. “I feel like I deserve it.  Where’s my fairy tale ending?”

“We are all brainwashed by the media,” Randall said, “by newspaper style sections and design blogs and issues of Elle Décor we find in our dermatologist’s waiting room.  My mother was sending me clippings from Better Homes and Gardens, Summer.  Actual paper clippings.  They want to sell you on a dream of home ownership but the reality is very different.  Owning your own home is work.  No matter how amazing The One is, you’re still going to have to touch up the paint, clean the rain gutters, trap and release some mountain lions – that’s real life.”

Was Randall right?  I thought about all the movies and television shows that had dominated my formative years: Ally McBeal’s Murano glass lamp, Mr. Big’s fabulous chandelier on “Sex and the City.”

The last person I talked to was my own real estate agent, Carmen Yu, in the dining room of her 3300-square foot Spanish-style eco-palazzo with its low-VOC paint, reclaimed wooden coat hangers, wild truffle insulation, and ultra-efficient commercial pizza oven.  She ushered me towards the “green” sofa she had made herself out of three larger sofas, then went to get us drinks from the floating wet bar that bobbed up and down along her in-home brook.

“Every night I sign into Redfin and Trulia and Zillow and I see all these amazing houses but I can never seem to buy one.  But their ads all seem so perfect.  What’s the matter with me?”

Carmen shook her head.

“I’m going to be honest here, Summer.  We put these ads up to fool you.  The photos are all taken with wide-angle lenses, run through a ‘sucker’ filter on Photoshop, or just hand-drawn by our kids.  ‘Cozy’ means small; ‘sunny’ means scorched; ‘airy’ means there are holes in the roof; ‘historic’ means a murder was committed there; ‘low-maintenance backyard’ means that the last owners salted the earth.  You’re 40 years old, it’s time you faced facts.  Do you want to know what ‘turnkey’ means, Summer? Do you?” She took my hand.  “It doesn’t mean anything.”

Her words hurt, but they also rang true.  No wonder 63% of L.A. county residents are now living full-time in their office cubicles, subsisting on nothing but Sparkletts water and Nature Valley granola bars.

That night I went home and after hand-cranking the emergency generator in my dark apartment, I was able to go online and sign into Redfin again.  I clicked through all my new matches and they all looked so promising.  This one had exposed wood-beam ceilings, that one had a two-story guest house.  Why, this one even had a low-maintenance backyard!

Then, as I had often done before, I visited the ones that got away.  There was 1317 Maple Street, with its six-foot-tall-ceilings and tar-impregnated top soil, sold for $700,000 after being on the market just nine days.  There was 415 Elm Road, which I rejected as “too boxy,” sold above asking price, probably to a happy family that was even now contentedly scrubbing toxic lichens off the three remaining walls.  While I had waited for The One, plenty of good ones, and even not-so-god ones, had gone off the market or been destroyed by landslides.  What would be left?

It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you.  The truth is, in the time it took you to read this article, you wasted $4,200 in lost equity, housing prices rose 30%, your landlord was convicted of exotic pet smuggling, and your apartment’s rat-infested carport slid four inches deeper into a sinkhole, taking your Camry with it.  So take my advice: don’t hold out for your dreams – just buy it.

We moved to Shanghai on a wintry day in March, my husband and I and our two dogs. We arrived for a job, sight unseen, and bedded down in a swank hotel on the company’s dime while the dogs were quarantined and we went apartment hunting. The company had provided us a relocation specialist, whose job it was to pick us up at our hotel thirty minutes before scheduled and midway through our buffet breakfast, then hurry us into a waiting car where we would drive back and forth through the grey, freezing sleet answering questions like, “Do you think it is necessary that you have both dogs?”

We spent several days searching through a variety of spiritless and expensive flats, whose grandiosity came in two flavors: Opulent Court of the Sun King or Decadent Sultan of the Orient. Did we see ourselves as more marble-cupids-and-crystal-swans-type people? Or more carved-wooded-dragons-and-enamel-phoenixes? Either way, the agent was at our disposal. She did have some suggestions, though.

What all the apartment buildings had in common was that they were new. Stunningly new. Glossy and gleaming and in some cases, still wrapped in a cocoon of scaffolding. When I mentioned that I might like to have a second look at one place, with carved wooden moldings and a cozy window seat, the agent spat, “But it’s five years old!” in much the tone you might use to say, “But it’s full of centipedes!”

I was thoroughly charmed by a small, modern nook furnished from floor to ceiling with IKEA products, all of which still bore their original price tags and labels, creating the effect of simply moving into an IKEA showroom. Even the posters on the wall were mounted in their original shrink-wrap, their non-committal BILD label obscuring the last few watercolor daffodils in the lower-right-hand corner.

In the end, we decided on an apartment on the 29th floor of the Century Metropolis building, a compound as endearing for its ample green spaces and generous views as its comic book name. The Chinese name of our building, optimistically, is “the Oriental Manhattan.” Our building is one of dozens in our compound, each housing thousands of residents in a ring of 30-story towers covered in bathroom tile under the easily-disproven assumption that tiles are “self-cleaning.”

The apartment came decorated in a style I like to think of as “Apathetic Modern.” It appeared as is someone got tired of carrying furniture down the hall about halfway through and thought, “Minimalism.” We had a glass dining room table, a quirkily asymmetrical end table, and the ugliest sofa you have ever seen. It may not have been lovely, but everything was gleaming new and clean. Not a spot anywhere. Everything worked, every time, no fuss, no bugs, nothing. New might not be much to look at, but it’s easy to live with.

Of course, there was some trouble. We would often come down to find a posted notice in the lobby that began, in English, “IMPORTANT MESSAGE! MUST READ!” and then followed with the body of the warning written exclusively in Chinese. The few signs we could decipher made casual mention of the risk of fireworks setting our balcony clotheslines on fire, of plummeting satellite dishes from the upper floors, and of the terrible poisons regularly sprayed throughout the building’s charming green spaces. Still, we had one easy year. Then everything, quite literally, came crashing down.

We had chosen a place in Xujiahui, a riotous commercial neighborhood southwest of the graceful old French concession and an ever-growing collection of shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and real estate offices. One street a few blocks from our apartment now runs real estate office-massage parlor-real estate office-massage parlor, right on down the avenue until it’s capped at last by a bank on the corner, a handy encapsulation of new Shanghai. We picked Xujiahui because of its proximity to the subway and more importantly, to the company shuttle stop that finds my husband every morning at seven sharp ready to be carried forty-five minutes southwest into the digital suburbs, to great swathes of land where Dell, Microsoft, and Intel are colonizing former rice paddies and steel mills. We came to know and love our neighborhood, from the combination barbecued duck and pirate DVD store across the street to the Abusive Flower Vendor who would hurl invective every evening at us, his best customers.

You can find our apartment compound just a tad west of the Xujiahui intersection, a collection of colossal steel towers and LEDS blinking out “Welcome to the Terrifying World of Tomorrow” in colored lights. You can have coffee at the Starbucks perched beside a giant glass sphere ringed in orange rope lights and look down on the manic Sunday shopping crowds who cover every inch of sidewalk, undeterred by snow, wind, or rain, to watch noisy demonstrations of various up-and-coming digital products. There is a constantly changing parade of live demos, video billboards, product pavilions, costumed mascots, and picketers. The first time I saw a line of shouting students marching through the crowds with picket signs hoisted over their shoulders, I thought I was witnessing a rare example of overt Chinese political protest. Turns out, the signs were advertising a sale on Hewlett Packard printers.

Almost all the buildings in Xujiahui are new or at least tricked out to pass as new. The pace of construction in Shanghai has already provoked a lot of breathless commentary in America and abroad but it’s still something you have to see to believe it. There are cranes and work crews everywhere, and the nights are lit up with the welding arcs that glimmer beneath my living room window at night. Everything is very thrown together, impromptu and impermanent. Contractors, developers, and speculators here know that whatever goes up today will come down tomorrow. Nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and boutiques may have less than a month between the opening party and the wrecking ball, so there’s not much point in squaring every nail. The expatriates here, too, their lives and commitments are rushed and temporary. For me, living in a furnished apartment had a temporary feeling. Why should I bother to clean the awful sofa when next month I might be gone, and the sofa, and maybe the whole tower, gone too? No, none of these things were exactly built for the ages, but after living in a lot of ragged places in the U.S. and elsewhere, I was getting used to sleek efficiency.

And then, like Cinderella after the ball, at the stroke of one year, everything fell apart. It was another March night, a year since we’d moved to Shanghai. I turned down my street, past the Abusive Flower Vendor’s cart. Tonight his daughter was manning the cart. She is sullen, but not abusive. I passed four or five security guards helping to wave a Lexus into a narrow parking space. I got to the door at the same time as a group of three maintenance workers in matching blue coveralls. They asked to be let in, but with my limited Chinese I couldn’t figure out why. Once inside they rushed to the bathroom and began busying themselves with my toilet.

“What are you doing?” I asked, and couldn’t understand the reply. “The toilet is not broken.”

I called my building manager and put him on the phone to translate.

“They’ve come,” he said, “to take your toilet.”

“To take my toilet?”

“Yes. They will try to bring it back in four hours. Maybe tomorrow.”

That was only the beginning of the problem. The weather turned warm, then hot. The air conditioner poured buckets of filthy water onto our ugly sofa.

I came home soon after to find the apartment dark and sweltering. The dogs were lying on the badly soiled sofa in pools of drool, the windows were covered over with mist, the flowers on the table wilting from their vase. The air conditioner wasn’t on. I was so upset to find my cool, orderly apartment turned suddenly steaming and primeval that I didn’t notice at first that nothing else was on either. No power. I called the building manager.

Meiyou dian!” I exclaimed. “No electricity!”

An electrician came to the apartment, unlocked our wiring closet, and uncovered a jumble of dangerously inadequate wiring with several small smoking explosions in the switchbox. He hastily taped together a makeshift solution which he himself deemed “very dangerous!” and promised to return tomorrow with a safer one. We never saw him again.

The electricity would be a perennial problem, but not the only one. When the electricity worked, the water didn’t. For four days we were without hot water, and had to trek across the town to shower at the newer home of a gracious friend. The drains didn’t drain. The water cooler developed a steady, pooling leak. A friend put one too many coats on our coat rack at a house party and the whole tower came tumbling down, scattering splinters of wood into every corner. The kitchen door wouldn’t open; the closet door wouldn’t close. One early morning we awoke to a crash as the dining room light fixture exploded in heat and came shattering down onto the glass table below. The clothesline fell. My built-in desk began a process of slow collapse, punctuated by the occasional outburst. When I pulled open a drawer to get a pen, the bottom of the drawer fell out. The bathroom was overrun with mildew. Mosquitoes bred in the shower drains and circled the house while we slept. The bank of elevators that served our tower began to rear, plummet, and stall. We kept track of which elevators that week were safe and which iffy, but we used the iffy ones, too, just the same. Then it was winter again and the heater didn’t work. We wore knit hats to bed. Now I understood what the agent meant: everything was old. Maybe it would be better to just tear it down and start again?

At least Cinderella was recycling. When midnight had come and gone, she lost her coach but at least she gained back a pumpkin. After two and a half years in China we moved away: where did all my shattered light fixtures and soiled sofa cushions end up? Is my compound still there? There are still plenty of investors in Shanghai, developers, speculators, and residents who haven’t had their midnight moment yet. Not everyone has noticed the expiration date stamped on the city, on its exuberance, on the wild life there. Be warned, new renters, and maybe invest in a space heater now.


Childbirth is a topic I do not often address in a professional capacity as doing so violates my well-founded resolution against discussing my reproductive organs on the internet, yet now that I am pregnant with my second child, the topic is once again at hand. I underwent a natural, drug-free labor with my first child and now as I prepare once again to do this stupid, terrible thing, I feel it’s my duty to council other young mothers on the hidden benefits of natural birth. (Note that some women find the term “natural” offensive, arguing that all childbirth is “natural” whether accomplished through chemical means or eased by medical interventions, but let’s be clear – after 200,000 years of human development, childbirth is still hideous and unnatural for everyone, epidural or no.)

Midwives, bloggers, and documentary filmmakers are quick to tout the many benefits of unmedicated labor, from faster recovery times to psychotic oxytocin-induced highs. The facts and figures I will leave you to parse on your own, but personally there are no data about the risks of fetal monitoring that will cheer me up when I feel like every bone in my torso is being simultaneously broken from the inside out. Let alone promises of spiritual awakening or a feeling of elemental connectedness with all forms of life.

Why then subject yourself to needless suffering? I offer the four hidden benefits of unmedicated childbirth: Machismo, Spitefulness, Superiority, and Something to Do.

One woman of my acquaintance dismissively suggested that women who refuse to take proffered medical assistance are “just doing it to be macho.” Well, yes. Of course I did it to be macho. Obviously. The last time I got really drunk I challenged my husband (who outweighs me by nearly 100 pounds) to an arm wrestling contest – I am all about macho. And needless, meaningless suffering is the core of machismo. I also happen to have been born with a high pain tolerance and I don’t want to let it go to waste. Bragging about one’s pain tolerance may be immoderate, but it’s really more an inborn physical trait than a finely cultivated element of character. In reality, I’m a coward about every other thing in my life—I have never had the courage to tell off a bully, send back an order, or ask for a raise, but you want to pull out one of my teeth? Bring it.

Of course I didn’t do it entirely out of machismo. I also did it out of spite. In fact I had been somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing until person after person kept telling me I couldn’t do it, that I would crack after an hour and start begging anyone at hand for drugs. Those of you who embark upon the natural childbirth course will soon learn that drug-free labor is one of the few goals in our society that people have no compunctions at all about shooting down instantly and viciously. Conventional politeness would suggest that when someone confesses a personal goal to you, you refrain from immediately scoffing at them: “Medical school? Man, you don’t stand a chance in hell;” “Ask her out? Good luck, buddy.” But tell your best friend, your mother-in-law, or your gynecologist that you’re going to try to have a baby naturally and they’ll laugh right in your face.

Like Marty McFly, there is no better way to get me to do something than to suggest I can’t do it. It’s not mature, it’s not admirable, but spite animates me in a way that courage or compassion could never hope to do. Once my (former) obstetrician had told me that 95% of his patients who claimed they were going to go natural caved, I was hooked – I would have sat right there in the doctor’s office smiling as I tore off my fingernails one by one just to show that smug jerk who was a quitter.

Base machismo and petty spite are joined by the third hidden benefit of unmedicated childbirth, a lifetime of smug superiority. Giving birth naturally means I can now scoff at every other instance of pain in any other person for the rest of my life. My sister has a headache? My coworker has a tooth pulled? Please. My husband could get caught in a bear trap and I’d be there saying, “Pfft! Bear trap? You don’t know pain.”

Of course, I didn’t do this unprepared, and this is the fourth benefit of natural childbirth—it gives you something to do. In my case, that meant a Bradley-style birth class where on eight consecutive Monday evenings we gathered in the desolation-grey conference room of a hospital in downtown Los Angeles and learned how to rock, roll, crawl, and respire our way to calm in the face of crisis. The class was enjoyable largely for the opportunity it afforded me and my husband to make fun of the other couples on the way home, but for those who want to save the $300 allow me to share the secret of the class with you now, for free. The secret is, breathe deeply. No matter what the question, the answer is to breathe. And there is only ever one way to breathe. Deeply. Whether in childbirth or free diving, the answer is never, ever to breathe in shallow, convulsive, hysterical pants.

Even when not in class, I approached pregnancy and labor like I was training for a championship bout. There were stretches, drills, breathing exercises, special teas and tonics to drink. I did Pilates and spinning classes, went running, did squats. I doubt any of these things helped at all, but it gave me a way to combat the gestational blahs and kept me occupied during what is essentially one very long, very slow, very boring opening act. I liked to imagine myself doing all these things as a part of a movie training montage, and when, after months of metaphorically wrapping my knuckles and jumping rope, I walked into the Labor and Delivery room to deliver my first daughter, I had the hard glint in my eye of the down-on-his-luck prizefighter at the end of the last act.

And yes, I nailed it. But rather than rest on my laurels, I went right back out there like a champ and got pregnant again. Now the only question is how to top myself for this next birth. Just skipping the epidural no longer seems like enough. I need to find a way to have it hurt more, last longer – maybe something involving exploratory colon surgery or unnecessary tooth extractions. Whatever it is, though, I can promise you I will spend the rest of my life gloating over it. And that’ll show them.

Family Truth

By Summer Block

Humor

Occasionally, I am Jewish. I am Jewish when watching Woody Allen movies. I am Jewish at delis and bar mitzvahs and seders and synagogues. I am Jewish when talking to a good-looking Jewish man. But I am never Jewish at Christmas.

What do I mean? It’s simple: my father is Jewish; my mother is not. By any reasonable standard then that means that I, along with my younger sister, am half Jewish. But somewhere along the way, my family simply decided that a mixed marriage meant that half of the children would be Jewish and half not. In other words, I am Jew, and my sister is a Gentile. The most remarkable thing about this conclusion was the ease with which it was accepted by everyone.

The origins of this strange myth are easy enough to trace.  My sister is the less “Jewish-looking” of the pair, with blue eyes that inspired envy in my childhood, fair freckled skin, and a charming Muppet nose. Growing up, her hair was a glittery translucent blonde above near-invisible eyebrows. Though no one would likely mistake me for Middle Eastern, as often happens with my dark-complected father, I do bear some traces of the Semitic – darker, curlier hair, brown eyes, and a nose that, if not prominent, would still be a challenge to fashion out of felt. In temperament, too, I have always been said to favor my father, and as a young child I consciously patterned my behavior on his amiable reserve and dispassionate intellectualism, while my sister shared my mother’s open heart, ready emotions, and inexplicable comfort with hugging. Does all that mean, then, that I am Jewish and my sister is not? Of course not: obviously none of us thinks this is actually true, but still, it’s an amusing thing to believe.

As an adult, I’ve adopted a dubious new schema. Instead of representing the Jewish half of my family, I have simply decided to be Jewish about half the time.When that handsome man asks me if I’m of the tribe, I usually respond by saying “Well, my father is Jewish,” a statement that is technically true but intentionally misleading when spoken by someone who was in fact baptized as a child. In fact, I grew up attending Christian churches—albeit progressive L.A. churches, laid-back, friendly, non-judgmental places that were a lot more about acoustic guitars and drum circles and scruffy beards and singing “Kumbaya” than sending anyone to hell–but churches just the same.

So why do I lie? Some of it, no doubt, is just the desire to appear different, or interesting, or ethnic, probably stemming from my time as the only non-Latino white person in my elementary school, who when everyone else brought tamales and kimchi on Diversity Day had to content herself with scones, a weak alimentary link to a long-ago English past.

But also, I like Judaism, I find it interesting. I like reading about whether or not giraffe meat is kosher, or about mechirah, the part during Passover when you pretend to sell all your dogs to Gentiles. Now I don’t keep kosher or pretend to sell dogs personally, of course, but it’s a great concept just the same.

About ten years ago, my father began listening to the late-night radio hosts Art Bell and George Noory on the 10pm-2am show “Coast to Coast AM” and Whitley Streiber on the weekly “Dreamland” podcast. On these shows, callers report their direct experiences with the dreadful and the fabulous, while self-appointed experts (including a panoply of UFOlogists) opine on the hollow earth, alien implants, reptoids, astral projection, the Planet X, and the “coming global superstorm.” Over time, this harmless habit became a veritable obsession. My father now listens almost every night, then rises the next morning to fill my inbox with emailed links to sites advertising time machines and powerful magnetic healing devices.

Through it all, though, my father has remained as I’ve always known him to be—intelligent, rational, and bemusedly skeptical—but these traits are hard to square with his newfound enthusiasm for the Freedom of Information Act and its promised disclosure of the government’s secret Roswell files.

“Look, Dad,” I said, “I know you think all this alien stuff is funny, but do you actually believe it?”

“I believe it because it’s funny,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, but seriously, do you think all this stuff is true?”

My father looked at me and said, “You know, truth just isn’t that important to me.”

Apparently it’s not all that important to me either.  Anyone who has seen me nod appreciatively at a klezmer concert in July would be surprised to visit my home in December. Because despite any Jewish proclivities, I love Christmas. I love Christmas as much as I’ve ever loved anything, and I love every part of it, from the carols to the gingerbread. I have five labeled tubs of Christmas decorations in storage, and every year I drag them all out, then go buy a tree, design cards, hang wreaths and stockings and mistletoe, bake cookies, and make gifts by hand. I love Christmas—yes—even more than I love pretending to be Jewish.

This year my eighteen-month-old daughter is just beginning to get in on the action; she takes candy out of the Advent calendar, says the word “tree” on command, and kisses all of the Christmas ornaments individually every morning.

Recently one of my friends, a scientist, asked me whether I would tell Beatrice about Santa Claus and flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole when she was older.

Now we are a family that believes in science, in progress, in telling it as it is. We don’t use baby words for bodily functions or tell confusing bird-based myths about sexual practices – but Santa? Hell yes we’ll do Santa. We’ll do Santa like you’ve never seen.

“You don’t think it would be better to tell her the truth?” my friend asked.

“You know,” I told him, “the truth just isn’t that important to me.”

We were already seated, drinks had already been ordered, when we realized to our horror that this particular restaurant had a belly dancer in it.

Now this is a mistake I almost never make. Decades of aversion to public spectacle have instilled in me an almost preternatural ability to suss out the wedding MC, the door prize, the strolling violinist, the birthday party clown. I have a sixth sense about restaurants, plays, concerts, and boardwalks, and yet now it had failed me. I grew rigid and watchful, eyeing the door. Drinks or no drinks, we would obviously have to leave.

Like a fool, my dinner companion stopped long enough to put on his coat and then she had us. She was right beside us now, dancing. I would rather have a leprous beggar under my table than a belly dancer beside it. I felt a raw physical revulsion and the crazed impulse to press my wallet into her hands and beg her to just take my money and leave.

The last time I was in this position I had been talked into going to a teppanyaki–style restaurant with some friends in China. We sat around a semi-circular table with a griddle in the middle of it while the chef chopped and tossed and sweated his way through some sort of culinary performance. And what were we supposed to do? One can’t very well hold a regular conversation while a man is performing for your ostensible pleasure only a foot away. So we should do what – watch him in silence? Include him in our conversation? Smile and nod while he watched us eat the food he had prepared? At one point the chef created a sort of volcanic cone of onion rings and set it alight with a small burst of flame and a sad little flourish—so should we clap? Who claps in a restaurant?

But if knife tricks are mortifying, dancing is a thousand times worse. Especially sensual dancing. Do people like this? I have never met anyone above eight years old who seems genuinely amused by tableside antics, strip clubs excepted. I cannot patronize a restaurant that will engage belly dancers, mariachi singers, or god help us, magicians. (Unamplified musicians are okay so long as they stay firmly perched on their raised platform and make no attempt to make eye contact with me.)

And when you leave the restaurant, it’s only to find yourself on a public street, prey to sweltering fur-suited sports mascots and mimes suffocating under a layer of gleaming silver body paint. Los Angeles, of course, is full of street-side entertainers, juggling and doing “The Robot” and dressing up like The Green Lantern, driven by twin desires for public attention and spare change. I know that theater is a tough profession, and I know that drama majors don’t have it easy. Nor do Medieval Studies majors reserve the right to throw stones (unless it’s some sort of Society for Creative Anachronisms thing). But I don’t think it’s so unreasonable to ask those who sacrificed their youth to the performing arts to follow the lead of us writers and poets, where your two career options are marrying a lawyer or slowly starving.

If restaurants and sidewalks are unsafe, theaters are a thousand times worse. Now I will concede, one does go to the theater to be entertained. However, I strongly prefer to be passively entertained. Any audience involvement, from raising my hand to choosing a playing card, is my own version of the Theater of Cruelty. For reasons as much aesthetic as psychological, I tend to favor plays that are unlikely to include audience participation: “The Cherry Orchard,” say, over “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.” One reason I love the opera is that I’m pretty sure no one will ever ask me to jump in and sing the mezzo part.

I know not everyone feels this way. Some people like making a spectacle of themselves, and for those people there exist pie-eating contests and reality TV. They are the ones who’ve just been waiting for someone to call out, “I can’t hear you!” But my opinion is not so rare, either; I know many people who agree with me. (One clever acquaintance always chooses his theater seats by making sure that there are no house lights anywhere above him – a genius idea I have since adopted.)

We the easily mortified are easy to spot: we sit up too straight, lean slightly forward in our seats, and wear a common facial expression of nausea and terror. So to actors, dancers, clowns, and mascots worldwide, I say, take pity on us. Call on someone else. Surely in your years of the Meisner Technique you picked up enough interpersonal psychology to be able to tell when someone despises the very sight of you. So why not ask that woman furiously waving both hands in the air and shouting “Me! Me!” to join your improv game?

Trouble

By Summer Block

Humor

I went through eighteen years of schooling without ever once getting into trouble. This is because my two favorite activities are sitting quietly and doing what I’m told. I have few inclinations to rebellion. My baser impulses have always been held in check by a generally agreeable temper coupled with a fierce commitment to personal dignity. In fact, you might say it was my commitment to personal dignity that has led me to where I am today, crouching in an alley behind a nail salon.

My parents are fond of recalling the time they took me along with them to the theater. I was only five. I sat perfectly quiet and still for hour upon hour, admiring my delicate lace pinafore and marveling at the sweeping staircases and great glinting chandeliers of the Los Angeles Music Center (designed, like many things in L.A., to impress the hell out of a five-year-old). During the intermission, I drank hot chocolate from a small porcelain cup without spilling a drop. I never once yielded to an unruly impulse, even when the show ran into ovations. That wasn’t much of a feat as I had no unruly impulses to begin with. Being unruly sounded exhausting, and probably dangerous, and almost certainly not worth it. Unruly children are free to scream and shout and fold their programs into paper airplanes that they then throw down from the balcony. But good children get lace pinafores and hot chocolate and anyway, I’ve never been very good at folding things.

If all this talk of lace pinafores and dainty cups of hot chocolate makes you hate me—well, there’s no good in that. I wasn’t a superior child and I didn’t think myself so. I was timid, clumsy, and constitutionally unable to do most things bad children do anyway, even if I had wanted to. More to the point, I lived in fear of trouble. I feared “being in trouble” the way medieval peasants feared the poisoned well, with a dread made more awful for being ill-defined and almost wholly irrational.

As a child, I had no clear idea of trouble. Even I knew that the punishments meted out at school didn’t mean anything. The teacher could write your name on the board. She could cause you to miss recess. At worst, she could call your parents. Your parents could take away your allowance. They could ground you. All of these things were pretty temporary. Trouble was something much bigger than that. It was a sense that somehow you had displeased someone, and that lasted much longer than a missed recess.

Now there are few ways left for me to get in trouble. I’m married, an adult, a freelancer—that means I don’t report to a teacher, a parent, or a boss. So I’ve simply enlarged the circle of people who mean trouble. I don’t want to get in trouble with the courts, the police, or the government. I don’t want to get in trouble with car mechanics, doctors, waiters, editors, or personal trainers. I try very hard to follow the rules. I floss, I keep my voice down in the library, I scrupulously check and recheck my tax receipts. I keep my arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. When the waiter brings me the wrong dish, I eat it anyway and leave a nice tip.

“Trouble” may be a nebulous concept, but certainly it’s related to conflict, and so it’s best to avoid conflict at all costs. I am so averse to conflict that I will turn off the radio when two pundits politely disagree on NPR. I will preemptively apologize when someone has wronged me. There is a scene in National Lampoon’s “European Vacation” where the Griswold family accidentally strike an English bicyclist with their car only to have him issue a string of apologies for having been in their way. I suppose it’s meant to be funny in its absurdity, but of course, it struck me as absolutely true to life, because it’s exactly what I would have done.

“If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you?” my mother might ask, and I would answer, “Well, maybe, if it was really important to them.”

This afternoon I went to my regular salon to get my nails done before an evening event. It’s especially important not to get in trouble anywhere where you are a regular. So I chose an already-opened bottle of nail polish to avoid being an inconvenience, and I took my seat in a place where I was unlikely to block anyone’s passage with my legs. I brought a book, which I tucked under my thigh so I could sneak a look at its pages while my hands were occupied. Of course, I soon had to turn the page. I made a slight flicking movement with the side of my hand.

“Don’t do that!” the manicurist warned. “You will ruin your nails.”

“Oh, of course,” and I returned my hand. But then the book was just sitting there. I read that same page over and over. Then I made another move to turn the page.

“Don’t move your hands!” she ordered. “You’ll ruin them.”

A few minutes later she left me unsupervised while we waited for my nails to dry. Never had I so badly wanted to break the rules. I tried to flick the page over with my thigh, with my elbow, even by brushing it with the side of my hand. Of course, it didn’t work, and of course I eventually turned the page, and of course I left a deep gouge in the polish on my right index fingernail.

The manicurist would return any minute to add a top coat! I had to think fast.

“I have to go!” I announced, leaping to my feet.

“But your nails aren’t dry—”

“They’re dry!”

“Let me check—”

“No, there isn’t time! I have to go. I’m sorry, I have to go right now.”

I got to my feet and started throwing my things into my bag, one arm shoved into my coat sleeve to hide the smeared nail. My disobedience had ruined my expensive manicure, and there was no way I could ask the manicurist to fix what was clearly my own fault. She would agree to retouch the nail, of course, but then I would be in trouble, and that meant I could never return. I grabbed the half-empty bottle from the shelf.

“And I’ll buy this!”

“But that one isn’t full.”

“That’s fine. I like it. I have to go.”

“The polish is $10.”

A pause. “Okay, that’s fine,” I added brightly, wincing slightly.

The problem now was how to pay while shielding my right hand. I slipped the damaged hand into my purse, while using the left to maneuver the credit card from my wallet, key in my PIN, and sign the purchase slip. (I am not left-handed.)

“Would you like a receipt?”

“No, I’m fine!” I called as I slammed into the front door, my left hand clutching the polish and my right hand still jammed into my handbag.

Now I have just a few minutes to repair the nail before I need to be in a taxi headed for my evening destination. I scan the street. The sidewalk isn’t safe. What if the manicurist were to come outside on a break? I would be discovered as disobedient and a liar. Instead I run down the alley that separates the salon from the café next door. Crouched among the trash bins, I kneel to quickly repair my nail, careful to do a smooth, even job that leaves behind no trace. It’s an inconvenience, and a hassle, and a waste of $10, but it isn’t any trouble.

I was twenty-three years old and working at a dead-end job when my boyfriend, a graduate student, was offered a chance to do a semester abroad in Paris. This boyfriend spoke no French and had never been abroad, whereas I spoke some French and had spent one week in Paris the year before. This made me something of an expert. Not for nothing had I slogged through all sixteen French tenses in college, including those used to demarcate actions intended, actions completed, and fleeting actions long anticipated whose ultimate execution leaves you feeling strangely hollow.

The semester abroad came with a small stipend but nowhere to live and so it fell to me to find us an apartment to sublet. Every morning I combed the classifieds atop our tiny hotel bed and called every listing only to find the apartments already rented. Unfortunately, I was not making a very good first impression, confusing as I did the word l’annonce (which means “an advertisement”) with the word l’avertissement (which means “a warning”). This confusion would come to seem fateful.

I hardly remember the first weeks, considering all that would come later, except for the cold and the dwindling money, the sense of impending doom, the consistently bad water pressure. After days of costly phone calls, only one option remained. L’avertissement read:

5th, M. Jussieu. Flexible availability. 2 rooms, 26m2 furnished flat w/ bathtub, American kitchen, 800 €/m. 5-6 months.

(The “American kitchen” is local terminology for a studio-sized kitchen nook without proper counter space or an oven; in other words, small, like America.)

I called the landlord immediately.

“Bonjours, j’appelle au sujet de l’avertissement de immobiliers,” I began.

“HELLO?! DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? PARLEZ ANGLAIS? HELLO?”

“Oh, yes, hello, I speak English.”

“SO, YOU DO SPEAK ENGLISH? DO YOU? SPEAK ENGLISH? GOOD. THIS IS MARGUERITE DELUCA.”

(It’s important to note that while I will shortly abandon the practice of writing her words in all capital letters, Ms. Marguerite Deluca will in fact continue to speak in all capital letters. Every single word she says.)

Only a few hours later, I would find myself face to face with Ms. Marguerite Deluca.

Or Margaret Deluca, as she called herself both names indifferently. Marguerite was a mustachioed American woman of Armenian extraction, 70 years old, divorced. She had lived in Paris many years, but retained homes in the States and elsewhere. She was a “feminist,” by her own frequent labeling, and a “liberal,” though her political opinions seemed more like an amalgamation of personal grievances against celebrities (she loathed Madeleine Dietrich) and vague, incontrovertible assertions (she liked women, and the poor.)
Marguerite had decided to sublet her apartment in Paris for six months while she returned to the United States for a minor surgery. She had placed l’avertissement months before, but when I arrived that afternoon, she had not packed a single item or even booked a plane ticket—and she was still not sure she even was going. In the meantime, she was planning to go to Nice to “decompress.” (Marguerite spoke with a strange slang, combining the worst of many decades with her own irrepressible gusto and grating Boston accent. She might speak of something being “plastic,” then end a sentence with an enthusiastic “baby!” as in “We’re just working one day at a time, baby!”)
The coveted apartment had a front living room, a small bathroom, an incredibly American kitchen, and a separate bedroom. The building was graceful, lovely, and old. All the apartments had charming French windows with charming French shutters that made you feel like you were in that one Egoïste commercial.  However
Marguerite had saved every single item she had ever laid her hands on in the last twenty years. The filthy apartment was crammed with filthier garbage—spoiled food, mildew and mold, soiled underwear. It reeked of dust, urine, rotting wood, and that inexpressible but instantly recognizable smell of old person. Marguerite washed all her dishes in the bathtub. The bathtub was therefore encrusted not only with mold and grime, but with pieces of food. The bathroom shelf contained a Smithsonian exhibit on turn-of-the-century cosmetics: witch hazel languished next to lipstick still made with real whale blubber, while nail polish silently atrophied alongside safety razors that predated plastic and weighed 1.5 pounds each. Underneath the wretched sink, tubs of dirty dishes floated in their filmy water, propped up by a broken stool, a sopping wet piece of foam rubber, and two plastic tubs of assorted crap, all topped with the aforementioned soiled underwear.
The kitchen was a moldering closet piled high with unimaginable garbage. She had saved every food wrapper, every lid and jar. Piles of margarine tub lids—just lids—rubber-banded together. Half a dinner plate. The rest of the house was stuffed with magazines, newspaper clippings, clothing and shoes, linens, hats, plastic and paper bags, and just about every imaginable item, piled high on every surface, everywhere. There was an unwrapped bar of soap in the bed sheets; a jagged pane of broken glass; there were three conical piles of salt on the rug; there were rugs and posters stored flat between the mattress and box spring.
The rug was encrusted with every possible pollution. By her own admission, she never vacuumed it, preferring instead to sweep at it with an old dust broom. Once, she declared proudly, she had scrubbed the rug with hair shampoo from the bathroom.
Sometimes I put hair shampoo on it, to clean it. Instead of going to get carpet shampoo‘cuz how do you do that?!”
She then suggested I try “dyeing” the rug by pouring coffee on it.
We took the apartment.
Marguerite originally promised that we could move in on Sunday, then switched it to Wednesday. As Wednesday dawned, the new move-in date became Friday. And so it went, for weeks on end. Our budget depleted, we were forced to give up our hotel room and spend the interim days in a youth hostel, an experience like living in a homeless shelter, but without the free soup.

We spent our mornings assisting Marguerite with her excavations, running her errands, buying her croissants, carrying her packages, and taking her phone calls. Her dedicated pack of friends visited daily, crowding the apartment with boxes, trunks, and conflicting bits of advice. From time to time she would capture a young, guileless Canadian or Australian tourist and lure him back to our home to listen to her stories of Vietnam War protests and lovers lost.  All the while Marguerite fanned herself from her ragged folding chair, imparting bits of wisdom like, “Be careful what you drink. The other day I drank some soap, I thought it was olive oil.”

Our evenings were spent out roaming the streets, buying time away from the insufferable backpackers with whom fate had bound us, half a dozen not-so-young world travelers wrapped in filthy North Face polar fleece, ambling through one of the world’s most fashionable cities looking like it was laundry day at forestry school.

Weeks passed; at last we were installed in the apartment, paying regular rent, and still the recipients of regular visits from Marguerite. We had simply exchanged places, and now it was she who was staying at the Young and Happy youth hostel down the street. She still came over in the mornings, always without a call or an invitation, to “pack” for America. She would plop down in her broken wicker chair and tell me, “You can just start the water for some tea, and there are tea bags in the kitchen.”

And then, with a lordly gesture, “You can just take these suitcases next door.”

And what did Marguerite pack in these suitcases for her excursion back to the youth hostel? A duffel bag full of instant soup and moldy tangerines she had dug out of her own trash can.  “They’ll be alright if you peel them.”

Her last night in Paris, Marguerite arrived with a confused-looking young man in tow.  This handsome German boy was staying at Young and Happy with Marguerite bullied him into carrying some boxes to our apartment for her.  He came in, set the boxes down with the utmost care, and stood awkwardly in the corner, trying to figure out how long he was obligated to stay.

It was time for l’avertissement.

I led him quickly down the stairs and whispered to him in stilted German, “Whatever you do, avoid Marguerite.  Really, you must flee from her.”

“I think she is crazy.”

At that point, Marguerite threw a pair of boots down three flights of stairs.  One landed within inches of my head.

“Jesus!” I shouted in English.  “Why did you agree to follow her here?”

He replied honestly and a little sadly, with his halting accent, “I didn’t know where I was going.”

I escorted him back through the cobbled courtyard.

“Why do you stay here?” he asked me.

“Because this is the only apartment left in Paris.”


Like most people who majored in Medieval Studies, I’ve spent a lot of time working in retail.  I’ve sold books, sporting goods, hardware, ice cream, coffee, and clothing, but my longest stretch was two years working at a Crate and Barrel outlet, the place where the housewares giant unloads its mildly discolored linens and slightly fractured furniture.

What Medieval Studies and retail have in common is that both endeavors require the apprehension and application of powerful governing mythologies. I spent my undergraduate years reading and translating Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and other medieval epics (my email address can be found below, if you’d like to hire me for something).  What these sagas have in common—besides iron breastplates—is the heroic quest, what mythologist, philosopher, and sometimes-crackpot Joseph Campbell dubbed the monomyth.  This quest can be broken into a series of archetypal episodes, each of which is familiar to anyone who has ever slain a dragon or tried to find six matching reindeer mugs from last year’s discontinued Christmas stock.

1. The Call to Adventure

Our hero, the customer, is called to quest – now is the time to register for flatware! This otherworldly summons can appear at any time: early Sunday morning, Tuesday during lunch hour, or five minutes before the store is closing and once the cash registers are all already turned off and the doors are locked.  One may hear the Call at the most inopportune moment, like the woman who decided to buy an entire suite of dining room furniture on her way to the airport to catch a plane.  Or the Call may come in the form of a gift certificate to the Pottery Barn, a store that does not, in fact, have any sort of reciprocal arrangement with Crate and Barrel.  The Call is also regularly heard around the times of Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is all the more curious since both holidays occur every year at the same time and neither is a surprise, yet every December 24 we welcome again the hostess who has suddenly realized that her life’s happiness depends on having a gravy boat on Christmas Day.

2. Supernatural Aid

Here is where the salesperson comes in.  In the retail quest, the salesperson plays a central and contradictory role, a combination god and slave.  As your salesperson I am inferior, because I am the one making minimum wage to double-wrap your stemware.  And yet I am superior, too, because I am the one standing between you and the last case of slightly irregular margarita glasses.  Like Athena, I inspire you; like Obi-Wan, I guide you; like Morpheus, I wear a stupid uniform.

Some shoppers come to browse, to stroll trippingly through the aisles of cherry pitters and fish forks, and happen upon the perfect cheese dome like Aladdin upon last year’s lamp.  But others embark on their quest with a plan.  They seek their El Dorado, their Fountain of Youth, their Shangri-la.  They seek the discontinued dining chair that matches the partial set they found at a flea market three years ago.  It is often my sad duty to inform them that the item they seek is no longer in stock, is discontinued, is only sold by Restoration Hardware.

But the questing shopper is not one to be so easily dissuaded.  Now enters The Myth of the Magical Back.  No matter how impossible the odds, the daring customer is always ready to ask, “Do you have one in the back?”

For the Back is the repository of a customer’s fondest wishes and his wildest dreams.

“Do you have it in red?”

“Do you have it in large?”

“Do you have one like this, only not this?”

“Are you sure?  Can you look in the back?”

Now I work here.  I know what’s back there.  But I also know that nothing will pacify the customer except walking back there to take a look.  I am the gatekeeper of the Back, and so I occupy a powerful, liminal role not unlike that of a priest or sage.  So I stride resolutely into the Back, spend four to six minutes making fun of the customer’s haircut with the stock guys, and then return to deliver my report like the Pythia from Delphi. 

3. The Road of Trials

But fear not! The dining room chairs may be long gone, but our transaction is not at an end.  The customer is there to buy, and buy he will!  During a rainy winter, more than one customer attempted to buy the filthy plastic bucket we used to catch the leak in our ceiling.  The customer will have his boon.

On his way, he will doubtless encounter an escalating series of obstacles.  Sometimes these are trials of raw strength, like the customer who snapped a silver picture frame in half in his trembling hands while shouting, “I want a horizontal one, not vertical! Hor-i-zon-tal!” then fled before we could explain that all rectangular picture frames can be hung either horizontally or vertically.

Sometimes they are trials of patience and courage, like the woman I told to wait one moment while I helped the customer ahead of her, at which point she threw her armload of potholders to the floor in disgust and shouted, “Fine! I’m leaving! And you can pick this up!”

And sometimes they are riddles, trials of the intellect.  One such customer became very upset because a certain two foot by three foot rug was priced at $15.95 while another rug of the same pattern, this one four feet by six, was $52.95.  He demanded that a salesperson explain the apparent price discrepancy.

“So, why exactly is this rug $52.95 when this other one is only $15.95?  It’s twice as big!  It should be twice the price!”

I explained, “A four by six rug is not twice as big as a two by three rug.  It’s four times as big.”

The customer persisted in his ignorance.

“A four by six rug is 24 square feet.  A two by three rug is only six square feet.”

Silence.

“It takes four two by three rugs to make a four by six rug.”

“This rug is half the size of this one!” he insisted.  But somewhere, there was a crack in his breastplate.

“I can show you if you like.”

I set two 2’x3′ rugs on the floor.  “You can see they aren’t as big as a four by six, only half as big.  It would take four of these rugs to make a four by six. And since each two by three rug is $16, and four would be $64, you can see that you actually save money by buying a four by six.”

Slowly he set the smaller rug back on the shelf and left to quest another day.

4. The Winning of the Boon

And what does our hero do when he has found his light of lights, his one true and perfect prize, his horizontal picture frame?

He bargains.

You can always tell these people because they march in, feeling all inspired and indignant, because some financial advisor on “Good Morning America” told them to never settle for retail price.  What they don’t seem to understand is that a major national corporation is not a Ukrainian fruit stall.  I am a lowly employee, one of thousands, and I have no more authority to change prices than I do to turn off this looping “Jazzy Christmas” CD.  I don’t own this store, and if I did, would I make myself wear this apron? 

5. The Return to the Ordinary World and the Application of the Boon

The hero has won his goods! And perhaps also paid for them.  Now this prize must be transported back to the workaday world whence our hero came.  But first we’re going to have to have a talk about shipping and delivery.

I was strolling down the street with my sister, tossing mini gummy bears into my laughing throat, when death paid me a brief visit. I was simultaneously strolling, laughing, talking, and swallowing, when a single mini gummy bear slid down my windpipe. No sooner had the little red bear made its confused dash for destiny than I coughed him right back up onto the pavement. I would say death flashed before my eyes that day, but in fact death is always before my eyes, like a retinal ghost at the corner of my vision. But in that instant, there unfolded a very specific picture of my death-by-gummy and all that would follow after.

I’m not afraid of dying, but I am afraid of dying in a way that guarantees I will be a laughingstock to all future descendents, possible literary biographers, and collectors of arcane death-related trivia.

I hope it won’t sound morbid to say I often picture what the world will be like after I am dead. A tasteful service, a few well-spoken eulogists in basic black throwing around words like “insightful” and “lovely,” and I gently depart this good life.

In time, while my bones lie quietly mouldering in a suitably picturesque cemetery (I would prefer London’s Abney Park Cemetery, if anyone is taking notes), some graduate student desperate for an original thesis topic will unearth a thin collection of my essays and stories, long out of print, and so earn himself a PhD from a small but well-respected East Coast liberal arts college. For a decade or two, my name will serve as an extremely obscure reference to be bandied about academic halls by pretentious undergraduates suffering from secret feelings of crippling inadequacy, and then again forgotten. I will have a Wikipedia entry, but only a stub.

Or why not think bigger? Perhaps a few of my more quotable musings, torn from chronology and context, will find their way into a brightly bound gift book, where they will join crafters of epigrams like Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde on the Barnes and Noble impulse purchase rack right by the cash register. Precocious and unattractive teens will aspire to emulate me, like that one month in high school when I dressed like Fran Lebowitz every day. There will be an automatic Summer Block quote generator on the internet but it won’t work that well.

Contrast then the death that appeared before me that day with my sister, my unruly epiglottis, and that fateful confection: I die from choking on a gummy bear. Instantly, the world forgets every single thing I have ever accomplished in my life up to that moment.

When you die by choking on a gummy bear, you are forever enshrined in memory as a clumsy, gluttonous, and luckless oaf. No matter that you graduated at the top of your medical school class, that you donated money to orphans, that you produced a delightful little one-man show to mixed reviews. No matter that you were thin and fit, a dedicated drinker of vivacious green spirulina concoctions and a regular fixture at charitable 10K races about town, where your financial generosity was matched only by your otherworldly lung capacity. No matter that you had never tasted a gummy bear before in your entire life: you are now officially the swollen-bellied slob who was so ravenous and ill-coordinated that they died while shoving gummy bear after gummy bear into their flapping maw, just like they probably did every other day of their life before Fate finally caught up to them and gave them the shameful ending they deserved.

101 Hilarious Ways to Die may well outsell The Wit and Wisdom of Summer Block at Barnes and Noble come some future holiday season, but that’s not how I plan on being remembered.

I’ve been on a diet now for three years, during which time I have lost a net amount of zero pounds. My technique is flawless. For me, dieting has always consisted mainly of eating all the things I usually eat anyway but then feeling really bad about it. Still, counting calories is the perfect hobby for me, combining as it does my love of simple accounting with my natural tendencies towards obsessive self-scrutiny and needless unhappiness.

Late last year, I discovered Fitday.com, a website that allows you to enter all the foods you eat every day and track their nutritional values. You can also subtract calories by adding common daily activities like brisk walking, kickboxing, and crying. Fitday is a great place to learn some disturbing facts about a lot of disturbing foods, like the amount of riboflavin to be gained from chasing a handful of quail eggs with 36 ounces of human breast milk. You can then use these facts to construct miserable imaginary lifestyles (combine “Food: 2 boxes, Frozen corn dogs” with “Activities: Lying quietly in bed, awake”). Fitday also taught me the utter futility of trying to burn two slices of pound cake with 45 minutes of yoga. With Fitday I still eat more or less whatever I want, but now my guilty indigestion comes aided by full-color pie charts.

Since it was obvious that Fitday wasn’t getting me very far, I decided to start tracking my progress at the gym instead. There are dozens of sites that allow you to track how many miles each week you run and at what speed. I spent the first week feeling extraordinarily fit and proud until the day I realized my treadmill was set to kilometers, not miles. Then I had to go back and change all my Fitday calorie scores for the previous week, including an extra 350 calories for consolation cake.

This led me to wonder, exactly how much money am I spending each week on consolation cake? My spending patterns have always been a little erratic, coming in alternating bursts of shamed asceticism and FICO-be-damned indulgences. I wouldn’t dare spend $90 on a new sweater I don’t really need, but six small dog sweaters at $15 each are a bargain not to be missed. This past spring I decided to tackle tax time with the aid of Mint.com, a comprehensive website that pulls together your financial data across the globe, allowing you to see at a glance the amount of money you spent last month on things like dog sweaters and novelty paperclips. So far my level of spending remains unchanged, but I have created dozens of different categories to label my indulgences, including “pet necessities: apparel” and “business expenses: decorative office supplies.”

Logging every thing you eat, spend, and do becomes very time-consuming. In order to improve my overall efficiency, I started reading the Lifehacker blog, an efficiency-maximizing website that now deposits more than 20 lengthy new entries into my inbox every day. It takes me awhile to keep up with them, especially as I’m also reading blogs on diet, fitness, finance, and cake recipes. Many Lifehacker entries suggest you become more efficient by keeping track of things. I now keep track of everything, in dozens of different notebooks, including wine logs, recipe collections, gifts ideas, weight training statistics, interesting quotations, design ideas, and pet vaccination schedules. Then I enter them all under “misc. expenditures: notebooks” on Mint. Number of calories burned for 2.5 hours of data entry = 74.