One of my relatives has been forwarding me cringe-inducing, right-wingnut emails for years. Most of them are bigoted diatribes. Some mimic Op-ed essays. Others masquerade as news stories, as in "Obama installs Muslim Prayer Curtain in the White House." I just delete them. I used to reply—"Who has time to write this stuff?"—but I never got an answer. Not until a few weeks back. Not from my relative but from none other than Tom Brokaw, the 76-year-old dean of broadcast journalism. During his lecture at Rowland Hall, as he talked about social media's role in American politics, he attributed those offensive emails to guys who couldn't get a date for the prom, hunkered down in the basement in their underwear, venting their spleens on the internet. The image resonated like an inside joke. He then turned to "The Greatest Generation," a Brokaw coinage, and to stories of World War II. The audience grew rapt. There was no mistaking the instinctive human response to a storyteller.
I try to remember stories that seem to offer an epiphany of the kind described by the great Irish writer James Joyce. For him, an ordinary circumstance or snatch of conversation could provide an epiphanic insight as the flash of a strobe does in a dark room. I hold on to my stories in the hope that, like seeds, some might take root and eventually blossom in an essay or such. Here are five prospects:
Thirty years ago, my friend Helen worked as a waitress in a chain restaurant in Massachusetts. In addition to their usual tasks, the waitresses had to make milkshakes. On busy Saturday and Sunday mornings, the time required to scoop ice cream into a metal canister, add flavoring and milk, then mix it in a blender—it was just too much. Besides, she said, the milkshake orders usually came from hung-over college students who left no tips. To those who ordered a milkshake, then, she said, "Sorry, the machine is broken." Last summer, I met Helen for breakfast at a restaurant of the same chain. On a Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., the tables were empty; the waitresses, bored. So in the give and take of ordering, I told our young waitress Helen's story. She turned to Helen and said brightly, "Then every waitress on the shift had to say the same thing." "That's right!" Helen replied, laughing. We all laughed. I laughed because I hadn't recognized conspiracy at the heart of the milkshake anecdote. The waitress laughed because it wasn't a new story.
Mohsin Hamid, 45, has written three novels, and his byline appears in places like The New York Times and Time magazine. He has degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School. I met him in a gym in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2002. I eventually asked if he would participate in a seminar at his high school alma mater, the Lahore American School (LAS), to discuss his first novel, Moth Smoke. I was a teacher at LAS, and my students were part of the wealthy class of Pakistanis the novel featured. He was enthusiastic. So were my students. They even read the book! The seminar exceeded all expectations, and in a culminating Q&A session, a boy asked for advice for the class of 2002 preparing for college in the U.S. Hamid explained that Moth Smoke was written in lieu of a senior thesis after he had lost interest in law school. His advice, then: "Don't work your way into Harvard Law School only to realize that you would hate to be a lawyer."
My friend Ed worked for General Electric. He was an engineer. He led teams that built turbines and electric motors for submarines. He once took me to the plant to see one of the motors. It was the size of an Airstream trailer. Those in the business of building submarines were fixated on noise reduction. To be silent was to survive in underwater warfare. (Remember the noiseless caterpillar drive in The Hunt for Red October?) One day, as Ed and I struggled to converse in a noisy restaurant, I told him I had read that a high-decibel din resulted in more food and drink being consumed. "Noise is an indication of inefficiency," he replied matter-of-factly. "Noise is wasted energy."
I consider myself a cookie connoisseur, and so I was attracted by this headline a few years back in The New York Times: "The Consummate Chocolate-chip Cookie." The secret of the best cookie? Use high-quality chocolate wafers, let the dough rest for 36 hours and sprinkle sea salt on the cookies before baking. "The sea salt is not an option," food writer David Leite averred. "It's the beacon at the top of this gorgeous treat."
Joan Didion wrote a number of essays for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1960s. They have been collected in a book titled Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In it, Didion writes: "The Post is extremely receptive to what the writer wants to do ... and is meticulous about not changing copy. I lose a nicety of inflection now and then, but do not count myself compromised." While writing columns like this since 2006, I have occasionally found myself crosswise with a copy editor, i.e. we disagreed about which word went where—the niceties of inflection, as Didion wrote. City Weekly editors are polite, but I imagine them rolling their eyes whenever I object to one of my "nice inflections" being altered. I have been tempted to share Didion's words with them, but I never have.
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