Daniel Menaker

A Lopsided Mess

Sunday, December 27, 2009

At this moment, abetted by the coming New Year and recent cosmos worthy news about the Large Hadron Collider, a memorable conversation comes to mind. It was some years ago, with a prize-winning astrophysicist. He and I found ourselves on the same college campus, he to address all the undergraduates, me to talk to a smaller group about publishing. We met by chance at the university’s guest-housing facility, over breakfast. I was unaccountably nervous about my upcoming performance–well, maybe not quite unaccountably, because I was going through very unpleasant occupational times then. In any case, we exchanged introductions and pleasantries, and when I found out what his profession was, I began to ask him some questions that had been on my mind for a long time. I’ve always been interested, in a thoroughly amateur way, in cosmology–how we and all this stuff got here. (Prize-winning astrophysicist’s comments are in bold text, below.)

“What? Does God exist?”

“Do we know anything about what happened before the Big Bang?”

“You mean what happened when there was no such thing as time?” he said, with a chuckle.

“You mean, if I put a fully wound clock into whatever there was or wasn’t before the Big Bang, it wouldn’t run or it wouldn’t measure anything, because there would be nothing to measure?”

“There was nowhere to put the clock–not even nowhere,” he said, as I recall.

“Let me try it this way: Did the Big Bang happen, in the way that we generally say that something happened?”

“Well, yes–there was an event.”

“Has there ever been any event that we know of that wasn’t preceded by a time when that event hadn’t happened?”

“No, not in the usual sense of those words.”

“So if the Big Bang happened, if it took place, then something had to have happened before it. Something must have caused the Big Bang.”

“Well, I think that sense of ’cause’ doesn’t obtain here. You know, by the way, that no object would be here at all if the Big Bang had been symmetrical.”

“What do you mean?”

“If it had been even, with matter going out equally in every direction, then we would have a lot of matter evenly distributed and no planets or galaxies or anything.”

So the Big Bang had been messy. The original tiny butterball of whatever-from-nowhere had exploded unevenly, and I could intuit how that meant that stars and so on could gather together and begin their grand and cataclysmic promenades. And how this man and I came to be sitting where we were sitting and saying what we were saying.

“Why are you interested in these things?” he asked. “You seem pretty intense about them.”

“They make me feel small,” I said, taking myself by surprise. “Right now this conversation makes me less nervous about giving my speech, but in general, thinking about the vast scale and titanic forces of the universe– I don’t know. When I was a kid, they frightened me. Now they comfort me. Just in general they seem to take the pressure off my tiny little life. And given my troubles at work, that’s a relief. I think the Bible says we are as a mote in the eye of God.”

“But the answers to these questions don’t give us the whys, do they?” my new friend said.

“No, but those answers, even if we had them, would be like the Big Bang idea, they would just lead to others.” I rather suddenly felt quite relaxed–maybe it was because the universe itself started out as a lopsided mess, like me. “Such as: Shall we have some more coffee?”

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A Conversation with Daniel Menaker

Thursday, December 24, 2009

As if one weren’t more than enough, here are (sort of) two (sort of) grown men making fools of themselves in a schizoid act of would-be-comic self-promotion.

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Speaking Plainly

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech was not only eloquent, modest (in its way), and possibly historic but it also set a new standard for direct language in recent public discourse. “We must face the world as it is,” he said. Notice: No word more than one syllable. Maybe this directness accounts for the defiant expression the President wore throughout the speech: mouth turned slightly downward, chin often thrust out, eyes just a bit defensive. He was, after all, trying to reconcile his Peace Prize with our being at war twice over.

The President’s style, in speeches and in more relaxed settings, often verges on the academic, and sometimes he falls victim to euphemism–we will “transition” out of Afghanistan (if we’re lucky), not leave it. Usually he talks pretty straight, but “transition” got me thinking about the language’s seemingly inexorable tendency to smooth, euphemize, and tame tough words–words like “leave.”

English contains many wonderfully elemental words that get ameliorated in Orwellianism and gentility. Here are some examples of words that have been sandpapered down or left behind: Janitor (custodian), crippled (handicapped), superintendent (resident manager), civilian dead and wounded (collateral damage), operation (procedure), deaf (hearing-impaired), drink (beverage), people (folks), etc. There are much better examples that will no doubt come to what’s left of my mind after I post this.

But two conversationally endangered words really must be saved–mother and father. Mom and dad threaten to obliterate these earthy, primal words, so thick with King James-style consonants, so similar to “faith” and “earth.” So, I suggest trying to say mother and father as often as possible in place of mom and dad. Mom and Dad won’t mind.

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“Isn’t It Grand?”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Embedded in this story I wrote for the Daily Beast, about the recent death of Liam Clancy–the last surviving member of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem–is a small fragment of conversation between me and my daughter, who is only the sweetest person in the world (in a tie with your daughter, of course). It shows how much complex humor and feeling and, yes, love, can be contained in one brief exchange.

And yes, I got her permission to use it, after she asked me to correct her age from 22 to 23. Come on–her birthday was only a month ago. Takes a while for things to sink in these days.

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On Talking to Doctors

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Most of the time patients are anxious. This anxiety is in the air of the examining room. It often prevents making a real connection with the doctor, and I think people should do their best to overcome it by trying to engage the doctor in conversation about something other than what is going on–blood going into one tube after another, choke holds on the old thyroid, fingers where they generally aren’t, deep breaths that leave you hyperoxygenated and feeling faint. Ask the doctor about himself or herself–not about degrees or career but about the pictures of families on the wall, or what that painting is all about, or whether he has ever thought about giving internet access to patients while they wait, about where he got that tie or she got those shoes.

Don’t forget this: even in frightening or dire medical circumstances, if you make contact with the person who is treating you (and assuming you respect that person’s ability), you will be doing the doctor–and therefore yourself–a favor. (It doesn’t always work: I once told a surgeon under pretty frightening and dire circumstances [for me] that he looked very much like Jeff Daniels. He grimaced. After he left, the resident said, “He gets that Jeff Daniels thing all the time. He hates it.”)

One more thing: when a doctor’s day isn’t just workaday, it’s usually grim. Try some mild humor, about yourself, about life.

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An Unusual Prize?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

From yesterday’s Dallas Morning News crime blog:

“If you’re a death penalty opponent or simply a fan of the book/movie Dead Man Walking, you may be interested in a drawing being held by the Texas Moratorium Network. The anti-death penalty group is offering a prize of a phone conversation with Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who gained fame for her work with death row inmates.”

Well, perhaps “winning” a chance to talk to someone isn’t all that unusual as a prize–schools and charities often raffle off lunch or dinner with a famous parent or a prominent contributor for those who donate sizable sums, though I’m not sure I’ve seen a conversation named as such as a kind of trophy. But it makes sense, because good conversations are indeed like prizes in many ways: they make you feel good, they can be “kept” on the mantel of your memory, you can refer to them with pride, and they are often partly a matter of luck.

And in this particular case, the prize is valuable indeed. I know, because it was my good fortune to work with Sister Helen Prejean at Random House on The Death of Innocents, the book she wrote after Dead Man Walking, and she is exhilarating to talk to. She is passionate about her cause, of course, and of course impressively knowledgeable about it, but she also possesses one of the best senses of humor I’ve ever encountered. If you ask her to, she will tell you one Cajun joke after another. Such as: Marie (unmarried daughter): “Papa, I’m afraid I am pregnant.” Pierre: “Wait, wait, ma cher–are you sure you’re the mother?”

Sister Helen faced down Supreme Court Justices but is also totally down-to-earth. This is one contest well worth entering.

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“What Do You Do?”

Friday, November 27, 2009

When you meet someone for the first time and don’t know anything about him or her, it is rude to start with–or even make your second or third questions–“What do you do?” (Especially with unemployment rates so high!)

The emphasis on work is an American preoccupation, and to be a really sociable person, it’s a good idea to delay occupation inquiries until it’s pretty clear that both parties feel comfortable with each other.

I’m told that in some European countries “How much do you make?” is a far more polite question than “What do you do?”   It makes sense when you think about it.

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“Me First!”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Allure magazine recently interviewed me about A Good Talk, and the sharp young woman whom I talked to, Marina Khidekel,  asked me what I thought the worst conversational sin was.  The answer–or at least my answer–came to me very quickly.

“Me First! ” I said.

This is when you say something and your companion immediately refers it to himself or herself. When, for instance, the remark: “The Good Wife is the best series ever about the law” is met with “Yeah, I applied to law school myself.”  Or the response to “I started my new job last week” is “I’ve been in the same firm for five years.”

Of course, using personal experience in answer to what someone else says is often perfectly natural.  But not when it becomes a constant reflex.  It may be that inattention–the Wandering Ear, I call it–is worse than “Me First!”  But “Me First!” itself is a kind of not-listening.

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Obama

Sunday, November 15, 2009

President Obama’s responses to questions seem to me to be getting more and more cautious, even hesitant.

A lot of “Well, you know”s followed by silences, followed by another “you know.” It appears that the complexity of the challenges he faces has slowed his conversations down–hardly surprising, but it’s a shame that some of his spontaneous and winning ease of conversation has been lost.

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