Daniel Menaker

Have Whatever Kind of Day You Want

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Now that the New year is approaching, I think for some reason that it’s a good time for me to tell you some of the many things that are wrong with saying to anyone “Have a good day” at the end of a conversation.

1. It is an order, not different in its language classification from “Go jump in the lake” and “Don’t go near the water.”
2. It is worse than “Have a nice day” (which is bad enough), because “good” seems more undeservedly complex and falsely sincere, partly because it’s newer. “Nice” can get away with just being an old-fashioned pleasantry. But don’t say either, is my advice.
3. It indicates on the part of the speaker a sincere hope for the happiness of the spoken-to. Most of the time, it’s really not sincere at all.
4. It is so American, in the worst way. This vapid neighborliness is usually a symptom of the kind of empty cheer that we all too often engage in.
5. People very frequently utter it under commercial circumstances–store clerks, waiters, receptionists and so on. Money has almost always changed hands.  There is a terrible tendency on our part to try to hide buying and selling under a social veneer.  This is why salespeople dare to use customers’ first names, in stores and in telemarketing. It is egregiously insulting, but very few people seem to realize it.
6. The person to whom it is said maybe be on his or her way to a first chemotherapy.

There are other reasons, but those will do for now. If a good friend is leaving on a trip, of course it’s fine to say “Have a wonderful time”–less an order than a wish. And there are other circumstances under which a well-meaning imperative is acceptable. But not–I would actually say never–“Have a good day.”

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

For the last few years, my wife and I very much enjoyed your interviewing at BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series.  In fact, if we had to decide between writers appearing there to round out our annual choice of five programs, we would favor whomever you were interviewing.  I was disappointed to see that you will no longer be participating there in 2011.  Have you lost interest in interviewing, or had that particular gig just played itself out for you?

Harry Kaplan

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kaplan,

Thank you for the kind note. It seems that BAM and the National Book Foundation have a policy of rotating interviewers out every two years, and I’ve had my two. I have to admit that I was disappointed myself, as I really love that audience, that venue, and that occasion. It seemed to me I got better and better at the job and enjoyed it more and more, but I guess policy is policy–unless there is an UPRISING OF THE MASSES demanding that I be returned to the podium.

In the meantime, I’ll be content with this wonderful compliment–it is very kind of you to have written.

My best,
Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Official Lies

The other night at a dinner party–which sometimes can seem like a prison sentence, though this one was delightful–I got into an argument with  a prominent historian about government lies. My friend was being very judgmental about Presidential lying. He pointed his finger and declaimed against the lies he believes Obama has told us, Bush before him, Clinton before him, etc.  I always get a little nervous about blanket statements like this so I asked him, “If you were God and could see to it that no President would ever lie or even misrepresent things to the American people, would you do it?” And he said, without hesitation, “Yes.”

I wouldn’t ever want such a President in office, for reasons that I believe should be obvious, and I’m wondering how others may react to this same question.

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Talking the Dog

Monday, December 06, 2010

If you own a dog, especially if you own a dog in a city where he or she has to be walked, then you know all about dog talk. Everyone compliments everyone else’s dog: “So cute,” “So handsome,” “So adorable.” Even if the dog is a hideous, scrunched up, smush-face, nylon gray in color, you have to say something nice if you meet in the dog run or even just on the sidewalk. You can dodge around a little–“Fascinating dog” or “One of a kind” or something like that, but you have to be complimentary.

I don’t think this is purely politeness. For one thing, a dog can be truly remarkable looking–handsome, adorable, cute. Of course, my dog is all three. (See below.) And that’s the point. I mean, as with children, dogs are generally precious and beautiful to their owners. His, over there, is to him. Hers, on the other end of the run, is to her. Mine is to me. They are not like works of art or movies or furniture or clothes, about which we can generally come at least somewhat closer to conversational objectivity. They are perfect to us, and so when we compliment other peoples’ dogs, we are basically saying, I know how you feel about your dog, because I feel the same way about mine. I will say it for you, and you will say it for me.

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Laugh Lines

Friday, November 26, 2010

Don’t read this unless you want your perception of laughter to change in an odd way. I’m sure many social scientists have already written about this subject, but I haven’t, so I will. We laugh at jokes, humorous situations, and for joy (watching a puppy race around a lawn, seeing a beautiful baby, winning the lottery).  But we also laugh at completely neutral and unhumorous moments and situations, especially during greetings, departures, and other transitional circumstances, like entering a business meeting.  And I don’t mean just smiling, I mean actual bursts of laughter, even if they are small.  Someone says, “Let’s get together again soon,” and everyone laughs. Someone asks,  “Why didn’t you go to the movies with the others?” You reply, “I was just too lazy,” and you both laugh. Clearly this laughter serves a social purpose completely different from and absent of mirth or joy. It’s a kind of a social bonding behavior, an expression of connection.

Being aware of this function of laughter and noticing it creates a slight sense of dissociation, because the reaction differs so widely from what we consciously think of laughter as being about. Someone says to you, “Well, it’s good to see you,” and you both laugh, and then you say to yourself, “What’s funny?” This phenomenon resembles other unconscious motives that express themselves in our behavior, in that it surprises us to realize what really lies underneath much of what we do.

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Organ Recitals

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It is so easy, especially as one gets older, to talk about medical problems–to dwell on them, I mean. This is true for a few reasons. For one thing, we generally have more medical problems as we age. For another, especially for those who have retired and are no longer active in other pursuits, there may not be much else to talk about–the arthritis and the weather.  Finally, there is the psychological fact that talking about illnesses tends to reduce anxiety about them–it’s a form of exerting control and a semblance of rationality over events that are essentially just random bad luck. (The question “Why me?” is a plea for a reason for our illness–a plan or a meaning.   It has no answer. In fact, from my point of view, it is an understandable but poignantly foolish question.)

Generally, “organ recitals” in conversation are boring, and the best thing you can do for someone who is is giving such a recital is to pull them out of it. Get him or her to talk about something closely related but different–their doctors, who has visited them (if they’re in the hospital) and then proceed farther afield, to other matters that interest the patient. In many cases, they will be grateful.

But sometimes–rarely, I suppose–conversation about a medical condition can be interesting in itself. You and the patient may find a way to make the subject of the illness a matter of curiosity and reflection. Not just a recital, not just a plaint.  In such instances, the people involved are asserting their intellect and inquisitiveness–in a way showing each other that illness cannot erase the human mind’s boundless thirst for knowledge and our pleasure in good company.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Nothing is more horrible in everyday life than a breakup that turns into a prolonged and bitter series of conversations about blame and anger and vengefulness. When someone throws you over for someone else, or, worse, for no one else, it is a deep narcissistic wound, and it can lead to an obsessive effort on your part to (as you put it to yourself) find out why, and to anatomize the relationship, and to pick apart every word your former partner says and show him or her how illogical he is or why he or she is wrong about you.

I have been there, some long while ago, and I learned, finally, not to give way to this (very natural) reaction. I remember telling myself once, simply, “Don’t.” Don’t call or write or, these days, email. Just don’t. This is why the Brits sent their jilted daughters to the Continent, to recover from the blow by occupying their minds with other matters. Remember, if you’ve been wronged–and I believe that it’s exceptional for anyone to be truly wronged in romantic situations–the best revenge is living well.

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Complimentary Remarks

Monday, November 01, 2010

A decade and a half ago, a wonderful poet named Deborah Garrison wrote a vibrant, funny, and moving collection of poems called “A Working Girl Can’t Win.” I will say that I published that book only in order to explain how the following events happen.  At a book party, a woman who was a colleague of mine at Random House–an excellent young editor with good literary taste–asked me if the person standing in the corner was Deborah Garrison. I said it was, and she said “I’d like to tell her how much I liked her book.” “Go ahead,” I said, to which the young editor responded, “Oh, she doesn’t care what I think.”

Wrong!  It is never a mistake to pay someone a sincere compliment, no matter how much distance you believe there may be between your station and his or hers.  This holds particularly true for performers, writers, artists, etc., because your admiration and praise are to a significant degree what they’re looking for.

If you feel called on to make a remark about a poem or painting you don’t like, there are secretly equivocal adjectives that come in very handy–“compelling,” “astounding,” etc.  Or–as I suggested a couple of weeks ago in a slightly different context– you can steal from Oscar Wilde, who, after seeing a bad performance by an actress which he felt obliged to comment on, went backstage and said to her, “My dear! Marvelous isn’t the word!”

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For the Sake of Argument

Monday, October 25, 2010

I once was the editor for the late Pauline Kael, a film critic (“reviewer” is more like it, though her idolaters would probably object) for The New Yorker, and she once told me that if she and a friend disagreed more than three times about important movies in a given year, she found it hard to continue the friendship.  Movies are a particularly contentious subject because their impact is so visceral. So if you say you don’t like a movie I like, it’s not only an intellectual disagreement–it’s an emotional conflict. This is far truer of movies than of any other art form, I think–certainly than of books or visual art–because the effect of movies on our feelings is so immediate. (And if you say something like “I disagree with you, but we’re all entitled to our opinion,” it may even worsen the matter, because the person you’re talking to may take it as a dismissal.)

Still, any argument can cause a rift in a relationship. Religion, politics, art, the behavior of others, child raising–just about anything discussable is also arguable. If you value the friendship and generally like the character and values of the person you’re arguing with, and vice-versa, no argument should threaten that connection.  If the conversation is beginning to turn bitter, both parties should remind themselves of their underlying friendship. If you’re in greater command of yourself than your friend is, there are several ways to defuse this kind of situation. Find some aspect of the issue involved that you can agree on (“Well at least we can agree that Obama can play basketball”).  Make a  self-deprecating joke (“Well, no matter what, I sure wish I could play basketball as well as Obama does”). Take some aspect of the argument at hand and turn the conversation in another direction (“You know, you mentioned Obama playing basketball–what  do you make of LeBron’s traitorous decision to go to Miami?” Well, leave out the “traitorous”–that’s my own irascibility creeping in).  I’ve found that once a bitter argument is lightened or slightly diverted, it’s far easier to return to the central question involved with much less rancor later on.

Finally, if being “right” matters too much to us–enough to interfere with friendship, marriage, social life–then we have forgotten that in 99.99% of arguments, being right or wrong is not going to change anything.  Serenity, one of the benefits of age (if we’re lucky) will serve us well in almost every situation. Actually, forget the “almost.” Some contrarians and opinionated types are so entertaining that they can sustain connections with others.  Most will alienate everyone around them.  Either they will try to get some help or face a life of social isolation.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In private life, corporate life, social life, it is sometimes impossible, sometimes just very difficult to tell the complete truth all the time.   Any important job in a company usually requires a certain amount of mendacity or at the very least misrepresentation. “We have taken it into consideration” can be an equivocal way of saying “We read your letter and threw it away.”  Once, as a publisher, I offered $100,000 for each of two books, but evidently I said it such a way that the agent, on the phone, responded, “Well, if you mean $100,000 for both books, it’s a little low.” I said, “That’s what I meant, and that’s what I can do,” because I sensed the agent was about to accept that amount and I felt that my economic obligation to my company had to come before my obligation to be completely honest. “Well, all right,” the agent said. “Then it’s $50,000 for each book.” We made the deal. Did I do the “right” thing?

It’s also common in publishing to exaggerate. An agent once asked me if I wanted to publish the next in a distinguished anthology series. I asked how many the last edition had sold. He said, “Fifteen thousand copies.” I said, “Fifteen as in ten?” He said, “Fifteen as in 12,500.” I said “12,500 as in 11,000?” He said, “OK–it sold 11,450 copies, and that’s the truth.” We both laughed.

In everyday conversations, it’s not only possible but common to resort to equivocations. Oscar Wilde once said to an actress whose performance he had just seen and disliked, “My dear, ‘marvelous’ isn’t the word!”  Many people try to wiggle out of awkward questions and conversations by adopting legalistic answers. “Are you dating someone else?” “No,” because at that moment the responder isn’t dating someone else. A somewhat whiter lie: “I’m sorry–I can’t come to the party because I have another commitment,” we may say, the commitment being to oneself to watch “Jersey Shore” that night.

The question of “social” lies in conversation is a tricky one–to balance courtesy and self-interest against complete honesty. Is it a lie to say you like someone’s tie when he  has asked and when you don’t like it?  Is “stunning” or “amazing” a way out of this awkward situation?

Well, my answers to these questions are the same ones that have no doubt been given by a hundred other self-styled opinionators: It’s OK to dissemble when the dissembling can do no harm to another. It’s not OK to do it when another person can be hurt or begins to believe you’re someone you’re not. If you need to look at it from a selfish point of view, the chances are that no one in the long run will be more damaged by your personal dishonesty than you yourself.

This is why certain business transactions can be so corrosive to character. So many of us have been in business or work situations when we must be essentially dishonest, or at least misrepresentational.

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