In this insightful collection, an accomplished essayist and humorist offers a class in “Tyranny for Beginners;” warns about the snares of dinner parties; explains the mind-set of barbarians; suggests the perfect gift for Mother—a wildebeest—and tells what happens when his dog’s barking drives him to thoughts of murder.
Roger Rosenblatt forces us to laugh at the silliness of the world we have created, refocuses our minds on what really matters, and alerts us to the injustice and cruelty that lie just below the skin. A recipient of a Peabody Award, an Emmy, and two Polk Awards, and the author of Rules for Aging and Making Toast, he offers an entertaining and enlightening read filled with his “trademark droll wit” (Tulsa World).
“The best thing about reading an essay by Rosenblatt is that he makes you think.” —Town & Country
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I'd like to do that again, if I could, Mr. DeMille.
We haven't got all day.
I know, I'm sorry. But I think I could make it work so much better this time. One more take?
The first was fine. Time is money.
Yes, yes. Time is money. But there is so much more I could bring to the lines with a second try. I've been thinking about the part a lot. Me as a child, for instance. I was much happier than I played it. You know? And the cruelty of my folks? Their blunders? Their neglect? That wasn't exactly right, either. They were just people, you know? I probably haven't done much better as a parent.
Or worse! Exactly! That's what I mean, Mr. DeMille. If I could just do it over, I would make a few corrections. The marriage scenes, the scenes at work. And I wouldn't thrash around as if I regretted every move I'd ever made, either. You know? That's just acting. I didn't come close to regretting much in my life. I really liked my life. I was just wallowing in a mood.
Like the rest of us.
You said it, Mr. DeMille. Like the rest of us. And as for the lonely times-the times I dwelt on?-well, they were also the most useful. You know? Like those Sunday afternoons in winter when I wandered the city like a ghost. I played those scenes as if I'd been abandoned forever when the truth was that the time by myself made me self-confident, kind of brave. So, you see, if I could...
Do you realize what you're talking about? You're talking about reshooting the whole picture! You must be nuts!
I just don't want to leave the wrong impression.
Everybody leaves the wrong impression, kiddo. Don't worry your pretty little head about it. Oh, wow. The story was better than you played it. Happier, kinder, sweeter. Big deal.
That's it, Mr. DeMille. That's what I mean.
And if we rolled again, you'd play it happier, kinder, sweeter.
I would! I would!
And get it right this time.
Know what your trouble is, kid?
What, Mr. DeMille? What's my trouble?
You don't know bupkis about movies.
My bear is of the polar variety. He squats at the other end of my kitchen table every morning, and he stares at me with his black, black eyes. He does not move, but I hear his even snorting. Gnnn, gnnn, gnnn. Like that, in a low guttural snort that is neither threatening nor amiable. If my kitchen window is open, the breeze will flutter the tips of his white fur. He is seven or eight feet tall (I haven't measured). There is nothing immediately alarming about him; yet, once I sit down, I am afraid to move.
He has something to do with my innermost fears-anyone can see that. Or with my mood swings. Once I suggested to him that he might be a bipolar bear, but he showed no amusement. I offered him Frosted Flakes one morning, too. I do not think that bears have a sense of humor.
I cannot recall when he first appeared-some years ago, certainly. It was not in the morning that I first saw him but rather one midnight, when, for lack of sleep, I came downstairs for a snack of Jell-O and there he was, glowing white in the light of a full moon. I sat and stared at him as he stared at me. Eventually, I got sleepy and retired.
Lately, he has stirred from the kitchen, where he spends his days, and has moved up to the bedroom at night, where he squats at the foot of my bed. He seems to wish to be with me night and day. I do not know what it is about me that attracts him. If he wanted to kill me, he could have done that long ago. Bears may look cute, but they are ferocious. One swipe of the paw and I would be scattered around the room like so many pieces of paper.
One night I decided to flatter him, but it made no impression. One night I presented a philosophical monologue to him-something that yoked the fates of bears and men together in harmony. He did not so much as blink. One night I cursed him out. I don't know where I got the courage, but I even raised my hand to him. I hardly need tell you that there was no reaction.
Here's my problem: If he establishes his influence in my household, as he has pretty much done already, how long will it be before he follows me outside? How long before he accompanies me to the newsstand or the grocer's? Think of the awkwardness, the embarrassment. He is not Harvey, after all; he's not invisible. And he is certainly not sweet-natured or wise. Soon, no one will come near me out of fright.
I am thinking of calling the ASPCA. Perhaps tomorrow, or the day after that. My bear is an unwanted animal, is he not? It is the business of the ASPCA, their duty, to take unwanted animals and treat them humanely. I would not want him hurt. Yes, I will definitely call the ASPCA by the end of the week, or early next at the latest, and tell them to please rid me of my bear, my beautiful big white polar bear.
Lecture to One Suffering YetAnother Identity Crisis
You strive to know yourself, and you are convinced that such knowledge derives from certain anticipations, from knowing how you will react if she does this, if he does that, or if this reward comes your way, or that calamity. You believe that self-knowledge comes from practice: You know how you will behave if you are rejected or if you have a surfeit of success because it has all happened before. You repeat yourself. That's who you are.
Or, if you know your limitations, you will say: "I know how much I can drink or how far I will go." And you'll call that knowing yourself-as if you were a car with so much gasoline inside you or a bottle with a definite capacity.
Or you'll focus on your taste or appetites. "That simply isn't me," you'll say, while trying on a hat. "Not me. I'm a different sort of hat." And that's true. You are a different hat, of a certain size and material, to be worn in one kind of weather and not another.
Or you believe that you are several selves-a torch singer, a bruiser, a lewd woman, a mouse of a man. You're not everybody, of course. No one is everybody. But you're several people. You know that. So you love your several selves. That's who you are. Or you hate your several selves and see yourself as the enemy. That's who you are.
There is another way of looking at this question of identity. Find a point outside yourself-less idiosyncratic, less self-referential, more connected to people you have never met. It isn't hard, really.
In a hotel recently, I saw a cardboard sign posted on an easel in the lobby announcing a meeting that day of a group involved with the economics of veterinary medicine. The event was titled "Practice and Progress." In the upper right-hand corner of the sign was a yellow Post-it note that read PUT THIS UP IMMEDIATELY!
And I pictured the person to whom that Post-it was directed-he or she who waited for orders from hotel management to put up cardboard signs for hotel meetings. And having received the orders, that person acted on them promptly, lest he or she lose the job and paycheck to someone who followed orders faster and better. So this person, whoever he or she was, would, upon receipt of the daily orders, position the poster on the easel in the center of the hotel lobby where all could see it, especially those involved with the organization on the economics of veterinary medicine.
And he or she, consciously or unconsciously, would also leave the yellow Post-it in the upper right-hand corner as a sign, however small, that he or she existed at all.
Once I had pictured this person, I knew who I was.
Copyright © 2003 by Roger Rosenblatt
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Table of ContentsCONTENTS
Lecture to One Suffering Yet Another Identity Crisis
What Bothers Me
Advice to Those About to Acquire a Rembrandt
Tyranny for Beginners
Don't Take Your Soul to New England
Stopping by Words on a Snowy Evening
On Your Conduct at the Dinner Party
My Stump Speech
On Class Distinctions
Shorter Than Bacon's
A Song for Jessica
New Year's at Luchow's
The Men's Room Wall: A Fantasy
Lines Written Nowhere Near Tintern Abbey
Twenty Things One Would Like to See in Movies
Odes for a Rainy Afternoon
The Albatross That Brought Everyone Good Luck
Bring a Wildebeest Home to Mother
Jaws's Side of Things
Go Where You Are Loved
Essays. I, Too, Dislike Them
If in My Sleep
Instructions to the Housekeeper
With Narcissus in the Aquarium
Kilroy Was Here
The Puppet Theater of Your Irrational Fears
Teach the Free Man How to Praise
The Day I Turned into the Westin
Cliff's Other Notes
Everywhere a Hit Person
Lessons for Grades 1 to 6
If You Had Given It a Moment's Thought
The Bathroom for You
13 Ways of Looking at a Blackboard
Shorter than Bacon's (More)
The Giant Rat of Sumatra
In the Madhouse in Beirut
Should Your Name Appear
Things I Can Take, Things I Can't
Cliff's Other Notes (More)
The Inventor of Time
Explanation to an Unprincipled Employer
Signs of Accomplishment as Depicted in the Rear Window of a Volvo
A Valediction for All Occasions
A Brief History of Idiocy
The Intervention of Facts
You Think I'm Kidding
Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos
How to Live in the World
Instructions to the Pallbearers
On the Other Hand
The Grateful Living