Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Page 123 Meme

(Yet another break in my Christmas storytelling to respond to the meme Litlove tagged me to do. I’ve realized that, by some obvious Christmas miracle, the passage is very seasonally appropriate, so if you came here looking for holiday stories, just pretend this one was intended to be included all along).

These were the instructions:
1. Grab the book closest to you.
2. Open to page 123, scroll down to the 5th sentence
3. Post the text of next 3 sentences on your blog
4. Name of the book and the author
5. Tag 3 People

Stalks of that selfsame wheat from the hallway are being soaked, folded, twisted, braided, and tied into an endless variety of shapes by half a dozen of Martha’s elves. Despite the humility of the materials, there is nothing simple about the ornaments as they are dusted with differing shades of brilliant metallic mica powder, an incredibly toxic substance that has the young man using it -- the only man working here in fact, albeit curiously named Meghan – wearing a double-filtered gas mask. The crafters are all hunched over their small wheaten garlands and wreaths.

David Rakoff, Don’t Get Too Comfortable (New York: Broadway Books, 2005), p. 123.

Thank God for laptops, which allowed me to be sitting in my comfy chair, this book by my side, when I discovered I’d been tagged for this meme. If I’d been tied to a desktop, I’d have been stuck up in the study. I checked, and that would have meant subjecting you to page 123 of The Chicago Manual of Style. This one is much more fun.

Of course, having just read that passage, you may be asking, "Huh? Fun? I can’t figure out what the hell it’s about." Quite obviously, it’s a passage that absolutely does not do the book justice, although if I tell you he’s describing a visit to the crafts department of the magazine Martha Stewart Living, you might begin to see the light, becoming somewhat intrigued. I’ll intrigue those of you who haven’t read it some more: if you’re someone who likes to fall out of your chair laughing, drop what you are doing right now and get over to your nearest bookstore to grab a copy of this. I haven’t laughed so hard since the last time I read a David Sedaris book.

But don’t let what I just said fool you. Comparisons between Sedaris and Rakoff are made all over the place, but the two writers are actually very different. Both wind up on NPR quite a bit, yes. Both are gay, white men, yes. Both have an extraordinarily acerbic wit, yes. But if you asked me which one I’d rather be, it would be Rakoff (even if he didn’t happen to have one of the best jobs in the world, getting paid to do things like pretending to be a cabana boy at a wealthy resort in Florida for a few days and then writing about it), because his writing is more an amused look at our entire society, rather than an amused look at his own bellybutton. Yes, he does navel gaze (all writers navel gaze), but he looks up all the time to see what’s going on around him. Sedaris, although we have to give him credit for possessing one of the funniest navels that spends its time traveling back and forth between America and France, doesn’t look up as often. I want a brain implant that gives me Rakoff's powers of observation.

So, here’s a much better (and longer) passage for you that does do justice to the book. (You may want to imagine discovering such wit when you’ve only reached page 5 of the book. Possibly you're sitting in a very public place, like a Barnes and Noble. You've happened upon the book and have taken it to a chair to have a look at it, trying to decide if you really want it. You know, the sort of place where falling out of chairs laughing is behavior not exactly welcomed. But, this is all hypothetical, of course. I'll let you conjure up your own little scene if you'd rather):

[Rakoff, a Canadian who's been living in New York for over ten years, has finally decided to become a citizen of The United States. He’s describing the application form and is noting his difficulty answering this question: "If the law required it, would you be willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States?"]...…I put the application back into the drawer and return to my bed, not picking it up again until seven days later, when I surprise myself by checking "yes."

I figure it’s grass soup. Grass soup is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a recipe for food of last resort that my father apparently squirreled away somewhere. I have never actually seen this recipe, but it was referred to fairly often when I was a child. Should everything else turn to shit, we could always derive sustenance from nutritious grass soup! At heart, it’s an anxious, romantic fantasy that disaster and total financial ruin lurk just around the corner, but when they do come, they will have all the stark beauty and domestic fine feeling of a Dickens novel. Young Tiny Tim’s palsied hand lifting a spoon to his rosebud mouth. "What delicious grass soup. I must be getting better after all," he will say, putting on a good show of it just as he expires, the tin utensil clattering to the rough wood table.

A grass-soup situation is a self-dramatizing one based on such a poorly imagined improbable premise as to rend it beneath consideration. Michael Jackson saying with no apparent irony, for example, that were he to wake up one day to find all the children in the world gone, he would throw himself out the window. Mr. Jackson’s statement doesn’t really take into consideration that a planet devoid of tots would likely be just one link in a chain of geopolitical events so cataclysmic, that to assume the presence of an intact building with an intact window out of which to throw himself is plain idiotic. As for grass soup itself, from what I’ve seen on the news, by the time you’re reduced to using lawn for food, any grass that isn’t already gone – either parched to death or napalmed into oblivion – is probably best eaten on the run.

All by way of saying, that if there ever came a time when the government of my new homeland was actually calling up the forty-something asking-and-telling homosexuals with hypo-active thyroids to take up arms, something very calamitous indeed will have happened. The streets would likely be running with blood, and such moral gray areas as might have existed at other times will seem either so beside the point that I will join the fight, or so terrifying and appallingly beyond the pale that I’d either already be dead or underground. (Rakoff, pp. 5-6).

Damn! I wish I’d written that! And don’t tell me you didn’t even crack a smile while reading it.

I’m breaking the rules and tagging everyone on my blogroll who hasn’t done this yet and feels like doing it. That way, I don’t have to single out anyone, and if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. Maybe that will result in 3 more to keep this meme going?


Charlotte said...

I've read and loved Sedaris, so I guess I would also love Rakoff. Is he the Macy's elf guy?

PS I am also quite envious of your meeting-up with (other equally interesting) real-life bloggers. Glad to hear it was a success.

Anonymous said...

Having all kinds of trouble posting comments on the new-look blogger. But will try to say (again) that I love the sound of Rakoff and will be trying to get hold of that book. I does sound absolutely hysterical!


Rebecca H. said...

You got me interested in Rakoff -- someone else recommended him earlier this year, and so this means I must read him apparently. I haven't actually read any Sedaris, but I did listen to the audio book of Me Talk Pretty One Day which Sedaris read himself, and it was hysterical.

Emily Barton said...

Charlotte, Sedaris is the Macy's elf guy. We were supposed to go see a theater production of that (The Santaland Diaries) on Sunday, but the lead actor got food poisoning, so now we're going Xmas Eve -- a fun way to spend Xmas Eve afternoon.

Litlove and Dorr, you both should read him. He's absolutely hilarious. And, Dorr, I have friends who swear Sedaris is better on audiobook.