Monthly Archives: December 2010

I Hate David Foster Wallace

Or: Brian’s Five Books of the Year, 2010, Part I

I hate David Foster Wallace. Nothing personal; I’ve never met the guy, and likely never will, as he’s dead. But I’ve just finished his debut novel, The Broom of the System, published when he was 25, and I hate him.

Why? David Foster Wallace fills me with enormous, hideous jealousy. Jealousy of the type that consumes, that strikes with tiny hammerblows against the cranium. I read a sentence of his and pound the table in anger. I get through a stretch of impeccable dialogue and flail about saying things which, in actuality, are probably incomprehensible, but which in my mind sound like “Why? Why? Why are you so goddamned good???”

David Foster Wallace can write sentences so direct, so obvious that you kick yourself for not having thought of them first. I recently agonized for about ten minutes trying to write a metaphor describing that yucky taste in your mouth when you wake up. Once when I was a kid I thought it tasted like strong dark chocolate, but that sounds like a good thing, so I drafted sentence-long collisions of adjectives instead. Then The Broom of the System came along and a character’s mouth “tasted like barn.” Just as simple as that. I stared at it for a minute and nearly threw the book in jealous agony.

Here’s another sentence like that. The character named Lenore has just found out that one of her deepest secrets is well-known to a slightly creepy stranger. “A lot of little lines seemed to come out of the lines of heat in Lenore’s body.” It’s a bit of an awkward sentence, in fact, but it’s trueDammit!

David Foster Wallace can also write sentences so complicated, so bizarre, that they seem to be jumping through hoops and standing on their hands and sticking their tongue out at you. And dialogue which is utterly fantastic: whole chapters are conversations in which it is never explained which character is saying what. Doesn’t matter. You just know.

I knew I was jealous from the very first page. The opening paragraph is a fairly typical device: the paragraph that throws you in detail-first to an unfamiliar scene and describes it without telling you what’s going on. Take a listen to that first sentence: “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman.” Dammit! But what really does it is that at the end of the paragraph, when DFW has just tossed in a whole lot of detail without explanation, you start to think “what’s going on?” A lot of writers do that. A lot of writers like keeping mysteries from the reader. They like keeping you in the dark because they think it generates suspense.

David Foster Wallace knows that’s not true. So the second paragraph begins: “What’s going on is that…” and then he explains the whole thing, ending with, “Right now it’s a Friday night in March.” That was the first time I pounded the table.

Listen to this from a couple pages later: “What’s going on is that the dorm is giving a really big party, here, tonight, downstairs, with a bitching band called Spiro Agnew and the Armpits and dancing and men and beer with ID’s. It’s all really cute and clever, and at dinner downstairs Lenore saw them putting up plastic palm trees and strings of flowers, and some of the girls had plastic grass skirts, because tonight’s was a theme party, with the theme being Hawaiian: the name of the party on a big lipstick banner on a sheet out in front of Rumpus [Hall] said it was the ‘Comonawannaleia’ party, which Lenore thought was really funny and clever, and they were going to give out leis, ha, to all the men who came…” No Rice student ever has to write about NOD again. This first chapter convinced me to abandon all hope of ever fictionalizing my own college experience. It’s already been done better.

Zoom out from the syntax and I get even more jealous. The Broom of the System weaves a lot of things together, as you’d expect from a novel about a Wittgenstein-haunted girl whose cockatiel spews Bible verses, who’s dating a neurotic anxious-ambivalent masochist, and who lives in an alternate-reality Cleveland, Ohio that’s just north of a man-made desert. In terms of subject matter, there’s a lot going on. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, there are a lot of different purposes being woven together here.

For example, there are little mini-stories in the novel, which are submissions received by a really hopeless literary journal. They are all extremely odd (one is about a woman with a frog living in her neck) and they all shed some kind of light on the book’s bigger ideas. But that light is incidental. David Foster Wallace is just showing off. He’s like a Paganini or Rachmaninov, or Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam: a virtuoso performer with so much energy to burn he’s demonstrating all the crazy things he can do. By taking these wildly silly mini-stories and making them engaging, even interesting, even enjoyable, DFW is asking, “Am I good or what?”

The final thing that made me really sting with hatred, though, was that despite all the diversions, despite all the mini-stories, despite the ludicrous details (like a character named Judith Prietht), The Broom of the System shoots in a straight line from beginning to end with feverish intensity. How is that even possible? Dammit!

Well, here’s how. First, every diversion culminates in something. The mini-stories are the best example, because the character who keeps telling them eventually tells a story which fails, and another character with no verbal gift at all tells the best story in the whole book, and the contrast is so shocking and moving that you can feel the entire novel shifting beneath your feet like a tectonic plate headed in a new direction. It’s breathtaking. Shocking, even.

Also, DFW very subtly uses the same language throughout as subconscious signposts. Page 28: “Is this cuddling? Is what we’re doing cuddling?” How long do you suppose it takes for that question to be answered? “Now this is definitely cuddling. Am I right? I think I know cuddling when I see it, and this is it.” Page 408. Four hundred eight.

Then there’s Chapter 19. It is a goofily short chapter, like Faulkner’s “My mother is a fish.” So you look at it and think, “Ha, it’s short!” Except that (unlike Faulkner), it’s about a very strange, telling detail, and the  detail is so carefully exposed, the words so carefully chosen, that I felt like I’d been hit with a hammer. Dammit!

I’d best stop talking about David Foster Wallace now. His book filled me with envy. It is spectacular. It is unreasonably brilliant on every level, from sentence management on up. There are a dozen things I could have talked about but didn’t, like how nice it is to have a vivid female lead character in a novel by a man. And it’s not his masterpiece, either, but the book people mention when they say things like, “If you’re really a fan, you might be interested in this curiosity from his early years…” Which makes me hate him even more.

I’m in good company, though. David Foster Wallace’s archrival, until he committed suicide and therefore permanently either forfeited or won, depending on how you look at it, is Jonathan Franzen. And my three attempts to read The Corrections, all ending at or before page 3 out of sheer irritation, suggest to me that Franzen writes not out of inspiration, but out of jealousy. He is like Salieri in Amadeus. He knows someone else got the gift. Jonathan Franzen’s writing is the writing of a man who despairingly realizes he is never going to be David Foster Wallace.

In that sense, I, too, am Jonathan Franzen.

Traditionally my “book of the year” picks, emailed to friends, or a friend, anyway, have been five in number. The other four will follow in a separate post.


Filed under Art

New Years’ Resolutions

There’s a whole lot of vexation in our popular culture about New Years’ Resolution and I don’t really get it, to be honest. People do New Years’ Resolutions if they want to, and don’t if they don’t. That’s meant both ways: if you want to make resolutions, and if you want to achieve them.

Hypothetically I can imagine a situation where you really, really want to do something in the new year and just can’t. Say, you wanted to spend a half hour every day free-writing short stories because you loved writing fiction, but then you got into law school and even read your civil procedure textbooks in the shower because there just wasn’t any darn time.

But we tend to remember that kind of story because it’s rare and uncommonly distressing. The truth is I have little knowledge whereof I speak; I’ve only made a new years’ resolution once. Most of my teenage life I cracked idiotic meta-jokes about how “I resolve not to make any resolutions,” and family members laughed weakly because they’re family and it’s in their contract to laugh weakly, but really I was just being tedious. Then I just pretended the whole resolutions thing didn’t exist.

Then, on 1 January 2010, I actually resolved something, for the first time ever. It was the classic New Years’ Resolution, to lose some weight. There was a fixed goal, 25 pounds by 1 January 2011 and 10 more pounds by 2012. There was a plan, namely stopping eating so many of the gosh-darned cookies and cinnamon rolls that Rice kept serving me and I kept lodging in my face.

And it worked. Gradually four cookies a day (told you it was a problem.) became four a week, then one or two; then came graduation and healthy, home-cooked meals for a summer; then came London and total starvation. Just kidding. Lots of walking, actually, and help from unexpected quarters. For instance, over the last two weeks I’ve suddenly developed a major fondness for drinking water after spending years thinking water was boring and tasted funny and was infinitely less palatable than a good glass of juice.

In the wake of actually hitting the first weight loss goal, I’ve been thinking about doing another resolution, and have decided against it. You can’t just do a New Years’ resolution because you want to do one, or even because you think you’re good at it (and I have no illusions). You have to really want it. It’s something to be a daily goal and thought process, not a “wouldn’t-it-be-nice.” Also, as it’s currently the Christmas season, roughly one-third of my calorie intake is chocolate. Losing weight is definitely on hold. After all, there’s a giant bar of Ghanaian fair trade milk chocolate to finish, and that box of Milka “mini” chocolate bars in four different varieties. Luckily the Lindt truffles ran out this afternoon…

So yeah. Pay New Years’ resolutions no heed. You can make resolutions any time of the year, without artificial Gregorian motivations. Now’s the time for eating chocolate. Later, when I actually step on my flatmate’s scale, I’ll get my motivation back.


Filed under Ill-Informed Opinion

The Simple Man’s Guide to Hair Care

Something which causes no end of confusion to simple men like me is shampoo. I know how to use it. I know what it does. But then I go to the store and am confronted with an entire shelf of things that look like this:

Always Smooth (but not rich?)

Recently I discovered something even more distressing: hair care products whose names are written entirely in Chinese. Things like (and I’m only making up the spelling), “Nourishing Xian Shui Lotion.” I’m not even entirely sure you are supposed to put it in your hair. Folks, this is baffling.

Luckily, help is on the horizon. I have begun design work for a new line of hair care products called Simple Man’s Hair. It’s designed for guys like me. The bottle labels will be simple, effective, and informative. They will contain exactly the amount of information necessary to guarantee a sale to a man. If I saw any of these products, I would buy them and be thankful somebody had finally bothered to explain all this stuff in terms I could understand. For example:

Simple Man's Shampoo. Retail price: a small number ending in zeros


Simple Man's Conditioner. Retail price: slightly more so a guy who just wants shampoo doesn't buy it by mistake

And the luxury end of the Simple Man’s product line:

Simple Man's Xian Shui. Retail price: something high because it's imported from Micronesian eucalyptus groves

I would like to apologize for the blatant sexism in this post. But, believe it or not, labels like this actually would help me. At least toothpaste still says “tooth” on it. Why don’t hair care products even reassure you that they indeed are for your hair? Gosh. Life is rough for an uncultured bumpkin like me.


Filed under Reality

Too Many Detective Stories?

Sometimes I wonder if maybe I’m a little too obsessed with a good murder mystery. The mystery novel provides an intriguing puzzle, a deliberate tease to the brain: “You can’t solve this!” Therefore a good bit of the pleasure of the detective novel comes in trying, desperately, to solve it before the detective does.

But there is such a thing as going too far, and sometimes maybe I do that. The line is crossed when I start to “detect” real-life crimes.

I’ve only just read a story of a young woman (only a few years older than I am) who disappeared from her English flat. Here is the basic story: her boyfriend, who like her was an architect, left town for the weekend to visit his family. She went out Friday night to run a few errands, because she planned to bake mince pies for Christmas and needed some cooking materials. At 8 p.m. Friday, she stopped in at the local pub. At 8:40 p.m., she bought a frozen pizza at the supermarket. Shortly afterwards, she returned home, put the groceries away, and vanished.

Now, here’s the thing that turned on my detective radar. Police know she had finished her shopping because they found the receipt for the pizza and other goods on the kitchen countertop. They also found her phone, keys, coat, and purse. But the pizza was missing.

Don’t laugh. This is serious. She’s been missing for 6 days.

They even searched the trash. No box. No round cardboard thingy. No shrink wrap. No dirty dishes. No pizza. Now the police, lacking any other clues, are very sincerely asking the public if anybody has seen the pizza. They’ve even released, thanks to the receipt, a list of all the toppings.

So, to recapitulate: woman arrives home from shopping, with a pizza. Woman leaves flat without keys, purse, or coat, but with pizza. Abduction is suspected. The news article made no mention of forcible entry, or broken locks, or any clear indicator of foul play. Kidnapping is only suspected because, well, how else do you explain this?

My detective brain is going haywire. I’ve spent more than a little too much time thinking about this and can’t think of any scenario. Well, except for one. She went to the pub before buying a pizza; did she only get a drink, or have a proper meal, too? If she had the meal then she didn’t really need the pizza, except maybe for lunch the next day. Her boyfriend wasn’t around, so she could just heat up something frozen whenever it suited her. But then, why would the pizza disappear?

Maybe she was delivering the pizza to a neighbor. Maybe she dropped it off, said “Oh, no, you don’t need to pay me for that,” and went home to her fate. This could be established through interviews. On the other hand, if she was paid back there would probably be an equal amount of cash somewhere in the flat.

Then, probably, she was followed to her own flat, or it was in some way broken into. But if it had been obviously broken into, surely that would have been said. The one thing the media loves more than an ambiguous disappearance is an obvious abduction. So when I thought of the next thing, I realized that not only did it make a good deal of sense, but it demonstrated that my mind was too, too well-trained by Hercule Poirot, Adam Dalgliesh, Kurt Wallander and Lieutenant Columbo.

Maybe the neighbor killed her in the neighbor’s flat, before or after taking the pizza, and then lugged her purse, coat, and keys back to her own place to make it look as if she’d gotten home safely. It was staged to look like a totally natural “I’m home” scene, but without anyone at home. The pizza receipt was thoughtfully replaced and the pizza itself thoughtfully eaten.

The biggest hint that I am too addicted to detective novels came next.

What I should have thought was, “That’s absurd! Mentally you’re already accusing a ravenous neighbor of being a murderer, and very possibly a sexual predator of some kind, on the basis of absolutely no evidence and for absolutely no reason other than to enjoy a bit of a mystery!”

What I really thought was, “Hang on. If the murderer put the keys back on the counter, how did (s)he lock the door up again on the way out?”


Filed under Reality

Welcome to the CELL

A little while back I received a letter from a friend who wrote, “I haven’t heard you mention how your classes are going.” Oh yeah! Classes! Sometimes being in London is so exciting that one forgets one is taking classes, although I have only actually forgotten to go to a class once. Which is not a bad record.

My department is a curious hybrid of literature and history which resides in the English department, for the purpose of making their research score higher, but which takes in students of history, journalism, art, and science. It’s called, seemingly as a non-sequitur, the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters. Basically the idea is to sift through the archives of 15/16/1700s England, piecing together the lives and letters of all sorts of people from the period, from Queen Elizabeth to libelous printers.

Our guiding spirit is a cheery, bubbly, cowboy-boot- and lit-up-Christmas-tree-pin-wearing woman named Lisa Jardine.

She's the one on the left.

Lisa (we all go by first names) is head of the department and one of exactly three faculty members. (There are ten students pursuing a master’s degree and about a dozen PhD students.) I’d post photos of the other two teachers (Robyn Adams and Matthew Symonds), but the pictures I took of them are really quite silly and my final projects haven’t been graded yet…!

So here's a photo of our department's building instead. Not such a bad CELL, is it? It's right on a canal!

So what exactly do we learn in our classes? One course, which has just finished, introduced handy IT tips for researchers, starting with Zotero, working through all the online databases (for instance, something like 85% of everything published in the 1700s is available on Eighteenth Century Collections Online, and there is a totally awesome website called Old London Maps), and concluding with a brief, terrifying overview of Microsoft Access. Another course is a broad survey of all the changes going on in the early modern world in art, literature, science, religion.

Then there’s a weekly Latin class. Latin was still the major language for intellectual work and diplomatic communication in most of the period, and as our teacher points out, it’s a great language to learn because you never have to speak it. I’ve had a whole semester without learning to ask where the bathroom is. Shoulda taken this at Rice!

Finally, our Friday class is in two parts: the morning course is ‘textual scholarship,’ taking in such topics as the history of books, paper and printing; how to transcribe old documents; how to work in archives; and, most fun of all, how to read really old handwriting.

This is pretty easy. Believe it or not.

It’s a bit like a crossword puzzle, or a cryptoquote. For instance, once I tell you that the second paragraph starts with “Thomas Bannister,” you know what an ‘h’ looks like and all those words that look like “fro” are actually “the.” And so on. Give it a shot!

Friday afternoon is trip time. Each week we go somewhere new, like the Victoria and Albert Museum…

These would look even better on my desk.

…the National Archives…

Ooh! Top secret storage facilities!

…and St Paul’s Cathedral. This picture is so beautiful I won’t be able to write anything afterwards, so savor it. And talk to you soon!


Filed under Storytime

Here’s to You, Mrs Robinson

Warning: spoilers lie ahead!

Once upon a time, there was a film in which a purposeless young man drifting through life after graduation enters an affair and then falls into true love. Forced to make a decision about his future, he demonstrates his freedom of spirit by rebelling. He chooses the spontaneous way, the romantic way, the right way. This film was not called The Graduate.

Oh, a lot of people think The Graduate goes that way, but I don’t. Maybe I am on the wrong side of the argument. Before you decide, hear me out.

The Graduate is billed as a comedy. Really, though, it is deeply unsettling. Its hero, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) keeps doing the wrong thing even though we are trying to like him; its villain, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), is sympathetic because we see the vulnerability behind her cunning; its love interest, Elaine (Katharine Ross), is beautiful but dim-witted. All of the characters do things which initially seem to be things no real person would do, but on further reflection, I think they are actually things which real people do, but only when they are fools.

The movie can be summarized as a catalog of such foolishness. Benjamin, the honoree at a lavish graduation party, drives a guest home and does not return until much later. His parents do not inquire as to his whereabouts. His guests are not offended. Benjamin’s reason for not returning is that a much older woman has stripped naked for him and offered him as much free sex as he can handle. He takes her up on it out of sheer boredom and spends the rest of his summer floating around a swimming pool, depressed. He promises never to date the woman’s daughter, then takes the daughter to a gentleman’s club so she will hate him. It backfires when they fall in love instead. She marries another man, but Benjamin shows up at the church and they run away together.

Now, in my view, that leaves three characters who have done something rash. Interestingly, the one with the best justification is sly old Mrs Robinson. She is caught in a loveless marriage based on a foolish mistake deep in her past. She feels inadequate, like an athlete who got taken out of the game in the first five minutes. She is sexually deprived and has no real emotional connection with anybody. She seduces Benjamin because she wants to. It makes her feel needed, enjoyed, happy. When Benjamin goes to the hotel desk to book a room, she smiles broadly at his naïveté. When he kisses her for the first time, she is visibly amused. Count Mrs Robinson’s smiles. It is a short list. And her smiles all come from Benjamin.

Another interesting note: Mrs Robinson, like many of us, is at her most vulnerable when she is at her most powerful. She seems to me unquestionably the deepest character.

Benjamin’s justification? He is just bored and, frankly, immature. Elaine is even dumber. He takes her to a strip club, humiliates her, sees her burst into tears, explains he’s only dating her to please his parents—and then she lets him kiss her! They fall in love! He stalks her back to Berkeley, where she’s fled after finding out about his affair with her mother, and before he can even fully explain the affair, she agrees to marry him!

I am told that The Graduate’s first audiences saw it as a triumph for free spirits. Maybe the movie was meant that way. None of the adults have first names, not even Mrs Robinson. They are symbolically anonymous. Mrs Robinson is a cruelly calculating woman whose maliciousness is revealed in degrees over the course of the film. Benjamin encapsulates that little bit of lost soul in all of us. Elaine has little depth, but gosh is she good-looking. The flight from a church seems to me quite a symbolic gesture, especially when all the older generations get locked in. Symbolic, too, is the fact that the lighting of the Robinson house is much warmer when Elaine is home. (It’s yellow then and a stark white when she is away.) The final scene was filmed in many takes because director Mike Nichols wanted to make sure the happy couple, together at last, smiled broadly enough.

Left: Mrs Robinson in the doorway. Right: Elaine in the doorway. This change was pointed out to me by Rice University professor and film aficionado J. Dennis Huston.

The film itself gives only two conscious hints that something is amiss. One is that final scene, where the smile is still not convincing enough, and eventually Benjamin and Elaine sit in awkward silence. They don’t kiss or even hug.

The happy couple. Hang on a moment: did I say "happy"? I meant...

The other hint is the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel. Paul Simon sings, “And here’s to you, Mrs Robinson…Stand up tall, Mrs Robinson.” And, rather than happy music befitting a successful love story, over the final shot we get the song (“Sound of Silence”) which has epitomized Benjamin’s moping.

And with good reason. What happens after the movie ends? Benjamin and Elaine still have not really faced the truth of “the Robinsons’ affair.” They have not had a lengthy conversation since the first date. The last time they were in regular contact was in high school. Their love is about as mature, deep, and well-founded as Romeo’s was for Juliet. Worse still, Elaine is legally married to somebody else, neither can count on a penny of support from their parents, and they have no plan, no possessions, and no marketable skills.

Once I started to see Benjamin and Elaine’s love story as a series of bad ideas, more pieces started fitting in the puzzle. Benjamin demonstrates with Elaine the same thoughtless impulsiveness that he showed with her mother. Elaine could benefit from her mother’s way of reading other people’s emotions. And why is Benjamin so listless, so bored? I’ll tell you why: because he’s a spoiled brat. His parents are rich and his friends offer him lucrative jobs. He graduated from an Ivy League school with honors. His birthday present is a scuba suit valued at $200 (in today’s money, $1,271). His graduation present is an Alfa Romeo convertible. A neighbor says he looks like the kind of guy who can get any girl he wants. Benjamin Braddock is drifting through life because he already has it made.

Then he throws it all away on an impulsive love affair. Not the impulsive love affair with Mrs Robinson, although that was a stupid idea. No, he throws it all away on the affair with her daughter. You could argue that it’s good to escape a life of privilege and absurd luxury in order to be true to yourself and get the girl of your dreams. But that is not the case when you are as impulsive, short-sighted, and downright dopey as Benjamin Braddock. He exhibits no creativity, no curiosity, no clear insight into the minds of others, and no ability to comprehend his own plight. He shows no sign of being college-educated; why aren’t there any books in his bedroom?

In The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock leaves behind his family, his upbringing, his friends, his education, his good sense, and ultimately even his Alfa Romeo, and gambles everything on a future life with a woman whom he dated for one night. At the end of the movie I felt unsettled and disturbed; I had expected a happy ending but got an ambivalent shrug of a final scene instead. I cannot help but think that The Graduate is a tragedy. Its characters will come full circle. As they sow, so shall they reap, a fact the young heroes would have learned had they not fled the church. But they will learn it in twenty more years, when Elaine, caught in a loveless union based on a foolish mistake deep in her past, feeling inadequate, and with no real emotional connection to anybody, will finally prove that she is her mother’s daughter.

Postscript. After I watched the movie and told a few people my initial thoughts, I was asked if I even liked it. Yes, I liked The Graduate very much. The soundtrack, acting, and most especially the directing by Mike Nichols were superb. Buck Henry, author of the script (and Liz Lemon’s dad on 30 Rock) has a really terrific cameo as a deadpan hotel clerk, Benjamin Braddock banging his head against the wall is one of the best movie moments I’ve ever seen, and there were many brilliantly crafted shots and scenes. Overall, it was a hugely satisfying watching experience. It was just distressing and disturbing too, and inspired a pessimism in me I really did not expect. Very possibly, the film’s ambiguity about whether it is a romantic comedy or a tragedy of wasted passions makes it a true masterpiece.

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Filed under Art

A London Thanksgiving

This essay was originally written on 27 November, 2010. Names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty, except Mary’s name, because Mary really deserves some kudos.

I had pretty low expectations for Thanksgiving. Classes were scheduled for the big day, it’s not really my favorite holiday to begin with, and here in London, the only real recognition the very American celebration gets is a sudden proliferation of turkey and cranberry sandwiches. What I was most definitely not expecting was the most outrageous, unforgettable Thanksgiving of my life.

It started modestly enough. In the morning, I went to class; on the door of my flat’s kitchen was a note from one of the other residents, a native Londoner named Alan. Alan wanted to let us know that he and a few friends would be getting together for Thanksgiving, and that we were all welcome to come and bring some food or drinks or friends. The co-organizer of this event would be Eva, Alan’s Slovakian girlfriend, who (like Alan) had lived in the United States for a few years and (like Alan) considers herself an honorary American.

I returned in the afternoon to find our sink stoppered up and two birds floating in the water. Closer examination revealed one to be a chicken and one to be a duck. On Thanksgiving afternoon, Alan had gone to the supermarket to find a frozen turkey, discovered they were sold out, and bought all the other birds available instead. I checked the time, 3:30, and chuckled. There was no way they were going to thaw in time for dinner.

That afternoon the FedEx man visited with deliver a package which made me a very happy man. Think, reader, about the foods you love most. No, not the foods that make you smile. The ones that make you close your eyes, pound the table out of sheer pleasure, and roll your head back as all the muscles in your neck relax into bliss. Such a food are my Aunt Jean’s pumpkin cookies, generous dollops of pumpkin and nutmeg batter slathered with cream-cheese frosting. And that FedEx box held a whole tin of pumpkin cookies, just for me. I could have eaten the whole thing then and there, but instead I decided to do a noble deed: to make somebody else thankful.

I knocked on the door of my French neighbor, Sophie. Someone else answered: her friend Valerie, newly arrived from Paris and with no knowledge of the English language. We said hello a couple times, and I pointed at the cookies. “Cookies…from family…try?” She took one, but didn’t eat it. I decamped to my room and transported myself to pumpkin-cookie bliss.

Aunt Jean’s pumpkin cookies in their native habitat.

Meanwhile, Alan and Eva were doing nothing to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner.

At 6:30 I headed over to the kitchen, where Alan and Eva were finally examining the birds and making an unsurprising discovery. They were still iced over. Of course, this problem took a while to identify (“Are you telling me I have to stick my hand up its butt?”), and required a phone call to Alan’s mother to solve (“You can put a whole chicken in the microwave?”). As the chicken was eased into the microwave, I pulled out my own raw materials and got to work.

I had resolved to make guacamole for the Thanksgiving feast. Mexican food is not very well-known in England, and a Texan grows nostalgic for it after a while. I became especially homesick in the chips (or, rather, crisps) aisle of the supermarket, where the tortilla chip shelf was nearly empty of options. There were “hot chilli” flavored Dorito corn chips, “tangy cheese” chips, and, inevitably, curry-flavored chips. Exactly two bags of plain tortilla chips remained. I grabbed one and made a grateful exit.

The guacamole production went pretty well. I didn’t have Serrano peppers, so I tossed in some red pepper flakes, and didn’t have any lemon or lime juice. But Sophie had told me that she had some lemon juice, so I went back to her door and knocked. No luck: she and Valerie had seen the defrosting chicken in the microwave and immediately dashed to the grocery store to buy their own dinner. I sat in the kitchen and fine-tuned my guacamole via large amounts of taste-testing.

There were a lot of onions, but I didn’t mind.

Meanwhile, Alan and Eva were pouring out two glasses of wine and planning the side dishes. Every five minutes or so, Alan opened the microwave and reluctantly stuck his hand in the chicken’s butt, feeling for ice and making basically the same butt joke every time. Eva was frantically slicing carrots, celery, and other vegetables, occasionally taking time out to explain something to Alan.

“This is celery.”

“I know what it is, I’ve eaten it before.”

“Okay, just checking.”

“What the fuck is this?”


“Oh. I thought I was going to smoke it later.”

Eventually, Eva got saddled with the chicken-checking duties. As she thrust her hands inside the bird, Alan grabbed her wine glass and held it to her lips. I thought this was a romantic moment. It was ruined when Eva, hands washed, opened a stick of butter. “What kind of butter is this?” she asked, pulling the stretchy, squishy block in different directions with her fingers. “It’s Anchor Butter,” Alan explained, “they’re a really good brand.” “No,” Eva repeated, “What kind of butter is this?” Her fingerprints left major indentations in the deformed stick.

The chicken went into the oven at 7:45. It took two tries, because on the first try the oven rack had not been moved down and the chicken’s legs got stuck in the broiler unit. Still, we were making progress. Dinner would be served in a few hours! I wasn’t sure I would want to try it, so I headed off to my room, sliced two pieces of bread out of a loaf I’d picked up at a farmer’s market, and made myself a killer sandwich. Salami, chorizo, turkey, fresh lettuce, onions, French whole-seed mustard.

Why yes, this IS the best sandwich the world has ever seen. Thank you for asking!

Meanwhile, I could hear the first guests arriving. Alan’s voice said, with his typical honesty, “Oh, have you brought a bottle of wine? You shouldn’t have.” Sophie and Valerie returned from the grocery, so I conducted emergency surgery on the guacamole to add the lemon juice before presenting it to an eager crowd. Well, mostly an eager crowd: the two Frenchwomen thought it tasted absolutely amazing, and I’m pretty sure Valerie started looking at me a little differently, if you get my drift, but a Turkish guy named Oz absolutely hated it. “I just think guacamole is disgusting.” The two French girls started cooking chicken in a pan, and somebody pointed out that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Eva, already slightly tipsy, corrected this: “No, there are too many women in the kitchen. Men never know how to do anything, so you can boss them around, but women always know how to do everything perfectly, so if they disagree they have to fight. One time the women in my family were cooking Christmas dinner, and we had a fight over the recipe so the whole time nobody spoke.”

At that point my parents called so I ducked out of the room and had a long, wonderful chat with them. When I returned, an English girl named Mary was making mashed potatoes, and the guacamole was going fast. We passed some time (actually, a lot of time) watching the Dallas Cowboys on an American guy’s cell phone, before – miracle of miracles – dinner was ready. This was probably at about 10. I grabbed a skeptic-sized portion of chicken and a more generous helping of the mashed potatoes. The chicken was perfectly fine. The mashed potatoes were the best I have ever tasted. Mary, if you’re reading this, come back and visit any time. Mom, I’m sorry, but it’s true. Mary’s potatoes reign supreme.

A short, stout Englishman spoke up. “OK, I have never been to a Thanksgiving dinner before, but I think you are supposed to say what you are thankful for.” This met with a murmur of agreement from everybody, but then an American girl interrupted. “Technically I’m a native American so I’m supposed to be a little pissed off.” The man I thought was her boyfriend (though, later, he kissed her and this inspired stunned catcalls and a loud “can we talk for a minute?”) responded a bit drunkenly, “Yeah, but you guys would just be eating buffalo.”

I thought I should interject in the girl’s defense. “Dude! Buffalo is amazing. If we were eating buffalo right now, that’d be so awesome.” She agreed with me. “I know! Like buffalo wings!”

Everybody was starting to look a little whiter than usual. No, wait. The room was getting hazy. I turned to the oven. The duck, now taking its turn, was producing alarming quantities of smoke; the fans were on full blast and Alan opened the window to let smoke escape into the nearly-freezing November night. Oz the Turk made a helpful suggestion: “Throw it the fuck out the window!” I decided not to be around for the fire alarm and decamped to my room.

When I returned, the conversation about football had turned to the subject of Peyton Manning. The drunk American guy stood up, showed off his muscular arms, and said, “Look at this. I would rather stab Tony Romo in the heart than touch Peyton Manning.” Eva, exhausted from all the cooking, grabbed an unfinished bottle of white wine and chugged it all down. The French girls were nowhere to be seen. I complimented Mary generously on her mashed potatoes, which she explained were an old, secret family recipe. She started listing all of the compliments her mashed potatoes had gotten over the years, like she was reading the potatoes’ résumé. Then there was a dull thud sound and a sharp clank.

The oven door was open. The duck was lying on the vinyl floor, its vegetable stuffing spewed out in a fan across the tiles in a pool of juices. Off to one side sat the baking pan and, above it, oven gloves still on, stood Eva, who immediately went from Happy Drunk to Angry Drunk, shouted, “This is what happens when people don’t fucking listen to what I say!” and collapsed sobbing against the refrigerator.

For a moment we all stood in silence. A Christmas Story flashed through my head. Sobriety struck a few people like a thunderbolt. Oz the Turk jumped into action. He dashed over to Eva, put an arm around her, and said, “No, no, it’s okay.” He leapt over to the duck. “There won’t be any germs. Guys, help. Everybody get up, come over, we’re going to put the duck back on the tray and back on the oven. It needs three or four minutes to cook and then it will be ready to eat.” Nobody got up. He put the duck back on the tray and into the oven himself. “What? What’s wrong with putting it back in the oven?” I sprang up and dashed to my room for paper towels. I gave them to a thankful clean-up crew member and then slipped like either a coward or a smart person back out of the kitchen.

For the rest of the night I can only record what I heard from my room, namely three shouts, in this order: a guy saying “Shit, let’s just go,” a girl screaming “Are you peeing in the closet?” and another girl hissing, “Is this Alan’s room? Oh, I wanna go through it!” After the food coma had properly set in, I went to sleep.

Was it the best Thanksgiving ever? No, certainly not; your family needs to be there for it to be the best Thanksgiving ever. But it was undoubtedly a classic, and possibly the Thanksgiving I will remember the most. Despite being in England, despite ingesting my turkey in cranberry sandwich form, despite spending dinner surrounded by raucous drunks, despite seeing half the feast end up on the floor, I had a truly authentic Thanksgiving Day. I ate well, got to talk to my family on the phone, had a chat with one of my best American friends, and did the good deed of letting someone else eat one of Aunt Jean’s sacred pumpkin cookies.

But the bottom line is that Thanksgiving is not about turkey, or football, or having a big celebration. It’s about being thankful. And, munching on a pumpkin cookie, preparing for class the next morning, and listening to the American guy being shouted at for kissing a girl other than his girlfriend, I remembered yet again that I have many, many things to be thankful for.


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