Way the World Works
Back in 1982, when I was just getting going as a writer, William Whitworth, the editor of The Atlantic, called to say that he was putting together a 125th-anniversary edition and he wondered if I had anything short to contribute to the front of the magazine. Flattered, I wrote something that tootled around in a ruminative way called “Changes of Mind.” Other pieces followed, and I allowed myself to believe that I was helping to bring back the personal essay, which had fallen out of fashion. Some of my heroes were G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Morley, Alice Meynell, William Hazlitt, William James, and Samuel Johnson. By 1996 I had enough for a collection, The Size of Thoughts. Now it’s 2012 and time, it seems, for a second and slightly heftier accrual. The first section of the book, LIFE, is made up of autobiographical bits arranged more or less chronologically; then come some meditations on READING and being read to. After that I tell the story of how I sued a public LIBRARY and talk about the beauties and wonders of old NEWSPAPERS; and then comes some TECHNO-journalism and writings on WAR and the people who oppose it, followed by a LAST ESSAY that I wrote for The American Scholar on mowing the lawn. I like mowing the lawn, and it didn’t seem quite right to end the book
with an impressionistic article on my unsuccessful efforts to master a series of violent video games. You’ll find things in here about kite string, e-readers, earplugs, telephones, coins in fountains, paper mills, Wikipedia, commonplace books, airplane wings, gondolas, the OED, Call of Duty, Dorothy Day, John Updike, David Remnick, and Daniel Ellsberg. In a number of places I’ve changed a title, or restored a sentence or a passage that was cut to make something fit. I hope you run into a few items that interest you.
My thanks go to Jofie Ferrari-Adler at Simon & Schuster, and to all the careful, kind editors I’ve worked with on these pieces, especially Deborah Garrison, Henry Finder, Alice Quinn, and Cressida Leyshon at The New Yorker, Anne Fadiman and Sandra Costich at The American Scholar, Robert Silvers and Sasha Weiss at The New York Review of Books, Jennifer Scheussler and Laura Marmor at the New York Times, and James Marcus at Harper’s.
Way the World Works
I was two years old when we moved to Rochester, New York. We lived in an apartment on a street that was only a block long, called Strathallan Park.
The shortness of the street was perfect, I thought: it had two ends and not much middle, like a stick that you pick up unconsciously to tap against a fence, or like one of those pieces of string that the people in the food department at Sibley’s, the downtown department store, cut from wall-mounted spools to tie up a box holding a small cake. You could run from our end of the street, near University Avenue, all the way to East Avenue, the grander end, without having to stop to catch your breath, or almost, and when you reached the far corner and turned, panting, with your hands on your knees, you could look down the whole straight sidewalk, past the checkering of driveways and foreshortened snippets of lawn to where you had begun. Everything on my street was knowable by everyone at once.
A few of the lawns along Strathallan Park were, though small, fastidiously groomed—they were bright green and fluffy, and they were edged as well: using a blunt-bladed manual cutter at the end of a push pole, the lawn tenders
had dug narrow, almost hidden troughs or gutters in the turf next to stretches of sidewalk and along walkways, outlining their territories as if they were drawing cartoons of them. The edge gutters looked neat, but they could wrench the ankle of a small-footed person who stepped wrong, and they held dangers for tricycle traffic as well: if you were going at top speed, trying to pass another tricyclist on the left, with your knees pumping like the finger-knuckles of a pianist during the final furious trill of his cadenza, you could catch your wheel in a gutter and flip or lose the race.
Some parts of the Strathallan sidewalk were made of pieces of slate that sloped up and down over the questing roots of elm trees (one elm had a mortal wound in its trunk out of which flowed, like blood, black sawdust and hundreds of curled-up larvae), and some parts of the sidewalk were made of aged concrete, with seams cut into them so that they would crack neatly whenever a growing tree required it of them. These seams made me think of the molded line running down the middle of a piece of Bazooka bubble gum, which you could buy in a tiny candy store in the basement of an apartment building near where we lived: the silent man there charged a penny for each piece of gum, machine-wrapped in waxed paper with triangular corner folds. It had a comic on an inner sheet that we read with great interest but never laughed at. Or, for the same penny, you could buy two unwrapped red candies shaped like Roman coins. These were chewy, and they let light through them when you held them up to the sun, but a red Roman coin couldn’t do what a hard pink block of Bazooka gum could as it began to deform itself under the tremendous stamping and squashing force of the first chew: it couldn’t make your eyes twirl juicily in their sockets; it couldn’t make all your saliva fountains gush at once.
When you pulled part of a piece of well-chewed gum out of your mouth, holding the remainder in place, it would lengthen into drooping filaments that were finer and paler than thread. And I was thinking a fair amount about thread and string and twine in those Strathallan years—twine is a beautiful word—about spools of thread, especially after I got the hang of the sewing machine, which I drove as you would a car, listening for and prolonging the electric moan of the foot pedal just before the machine’s silver-knobbed wheel began to turn, and steering the NASCAR scrap of fabric around a demanding closed course of loops and esses. When you floored the Singer’s pedal, the down-darting lever in the side of the machine rose and fell so fast that it became two ghost levers, one at the top of its transit and one at the bottom, and the yanked spool on top responded by hopping and twirling on its spindle, flinging its close-spiraled life away.
Sometimes my mother let me take the spool off the sewing machine and thread the whole living room with it, starting with a small anchor knot on a drawer handle and unreeling it around end tables and doorknobs and lamp bases and rocking-chair arms until everything was interconnected. The only way to get out of the room, after I’d finished its web, was to duck below the thread layer and crawl out.
I was wary of the needle of the sewing machine—my father told me that a sewing machine needle had once gone through my grandmother’s fingernail, next to the bone, and I didn’t like the long shiny hypodermic needles, called “boosters,” at Dr. Ratabaw’s office one block over on Goodman Street. One morning, just after I took a bath, wearing only a T-shirt and underpants, I climbed down into the lightwell of a basement window in the back of our house, and in so doing disturbed some yellow jackets that had built
a set of condominiums there, and I got several dozen short-needled booster shots at once, and saw my mother’s arm set upon by outraged wasp abdomens that glinted in the sun as she brushed them off me. I tried to be braver at Dr. Ratabaw’s office after that.
So that was my first street, Strathallan Park. Everything was right nearby, but sometimes we traveled farther afield, to Midtown Plaza, for instance, where I saw a man open a door in the Clock of Nations and climb inside its blue central pillar. There were thick tresses of multicolored wire in the Clock of Nations, each wire controlling a different papier-mâché figure, all of whom danced back then, in the days before Midtown Plaza went into a decline and the clock froze. We bought a kite and some string at Parkleigh pharmacy and took them with us to the greensward behind the Memorial Art Gallery, where there were three or four enormous trees and many boomerang-shaped seedpods that rattled like maracas. There wasn’t enough wind there to hold the kite up, so we took it to a park, where it got caught in a tree and tore. My father repaired it on the spot, and even though it was now scarred, heavy with masking tape, we managed to get it aloft again briefly before it was caught by the same tree a second time. That was the beginning of my interest in kite flying.
Then, when I was six, we—that is, my sister, Rachel, my father and mother—moved to a house on Highland Avenue. It had a newel post on the front banister that was perfect for threading the front hall and living room, which I did several times, and it had a porte cochere and six bathrooms, a few of which worked, and it had an old wooden telephone in the hall closet that connected to another telephone in a room in the garage. The phone was dead, as my sister and I verified by shouting inaudible questions into either end, but there
were interestingly herringboned threads woven as insulation around its cord, and because the phone had never been much used, the threads weren’t frayed.
Highland Avenue was, as it turned out, also a perfect length of street, just as Strathallan had been, but in the opposite way: it went on forever. In one direction it sloped past Cobbs Hill Drive, where I always turned left when I walked to school, and then past the lawn-and-garden store, where my father bought prehistoric sedums every Sunday; and then it just kept on going. In the other direction it ran past our neighbors’ houses, the Collinses, the Cooks, the Pelusios, and the Eberleins, and past a suburban-looking house on the left, and then it became quite a narrow street without sidewalks that just flowed on and on, who knew where. On Strathallan, our house number had been 30; now it was 1422, meaning that there must have been over a thousand houses on our street. In fact, it wasn’t even called a street; it was an avenue. Avenues were, I gathered, more heavily trafficked, and therefore more important, than streets—Monroe Avenue, East Avenue, Lyell Avenue, Highland Avenue—they reached into surrounding counties and countries, and because the world was round, their ends all joined up on the other side. I was quite pleased to be part of something so infinite.
Soon after we moved in, my grandparents gave us a hammock made of green and white string. We hung it from two hooks on the front porch, and I lay in it looking at the fragment of Highland Avenue that I saw through the stretched fretwork of its strings. I could hear a car coming long before I could see it, and as it passed, its sound swooshed up the driveway toward me like a wave on a beach. That’s when I counted it. One day I counted a thousand cars
while lying on that hammock. It took about half an hour or so—a thousand wasn’t as close to infinity as I’d thought it was.
And Cobbs Hill Park, half a block from where we lived, was, I discovered, one of the best kite-flying places in the city. My father was able to put a box kite in the air, which I never could; once it was up it was like a rock, unmoving, nailed to the sky. The key to kite flying, I found, was that you needed to lick your finger a lot and hold it in the air, and you always had to buy more rolls of string than you thought you needed, because the string manufacturers cheated by winding their product in open crisscrossing patterns around an empty cardboard cylinder—it looked as if you were holding a ball of string that was miles long, but in fact it was only eight hundred feet, which was nothing. One way or another, we always ran out of string.
To put myself to sleep at night, I began thinking about kites that never had to come down. I would add more string, half a dozen rolls of it, and when I knew the kite was steady, I would tie my end to a heavy ring in the ground that couldn’t pull away and then I would shinny up the kite line with sticks in my pockets. I’d climb until I was a good ways up, and then I would make a loop around one foot to hold some of my weight, and begin knotting a sort of tree house out of the kite string to which I clung. The kite would be pulled down a little as I worked, but it was so far up in the sky that the loss of height didn’t matter much, and I would use the sticks that I’d brought along as braces or slats around which I would weave the string, emulating our hammock’s texture, until I had made a small, wind-shielding crow’s nest like the basket in a hot-air balloon. I would spend the night up there, and the next morning, as people arrived in the park with their kites, they would point up at me and be impressed.
But that was just how I got to sleep; my biggest real moment of Cobbs Hill kite flying came around 1966, when I was nine. I was given a bat-shaped kite that year. It came from England via Bermuda in a long cardboard box that said “Bat Kite.” The wings were made of black, slightly stretchy vinyl, with four wooden dowels as braces, a fiberglass crosspiece, and a triangle of vinyl with a metal grommet in it, where you tied the string. It was entirely black, a beautiful kite, but I wasn’t able to get it up in the air for more than a few minutes because it was so heavy.
Then one weekend my old tricycle rival, Fred Streuver, and I went up to Cobbs Hill on a day when there was a hard steady wind blowing in from Pittsford Plaza, and the bat kite went up and it stayed up. We were stunned. What had we done right? We began feeding out the string. The kite seemed to want to stay up in the sky. Nothing we could do would bother it. It was hungry for string and it kept pulling, wanting to go out farther, over the path near the tennis courts. I tied on another roll, checking to be sure that I’d made a square knot—the kind that gets stronger and tighter the harder you pull on it. Our black bat was now out past the lilac bushes near Culver Road, and it was high high in the air, visible all over Rochester—hundreds of people could see it—and then we tied on another roll, and it was out beyond Culver Road and still asking for more string.
I had an almost frightened feeling—I was holding directly on to something that was alive and flying and yet far away. Having thought my way out to the empty air where the kite was, I almost forgot how to balance as I stood on the grass of Cobbs Hill. Even the square knots that we had tied had risen out of sight—the string was getting more and more infinite every minute.
Then, as always, we ran out. But we wanted more. We wanted our bat to go a full mile out. Fred held the line as I gathered a length of scrap string that some departed fliers had left behind; I tied it on, even though it had a nested tangle in it that held a twig, and the kite kept pulling. I found another abandoned string, but here Fred and I were overhasty when we tied the knot, we were laughing crazily by now, we were tired, and neither of us was checking each other’s work. We sent up the new string, but when it had gone just out of reach, I saw a tiny unpleasant movement in the knot. It was a writhing sort of furtive wiggle. I said, “No, bring it down!” and I grabbed the line, but the kite’s pull was too strong, and the flawed knot shrugged off the rest of its loops—it had been, I now saw, a granny knot. The string that we held went limp, and the string on the other side of the failed knot went limp as well, and floated sideways.
Way off beyond Culver Road, the kite learned the truth all at once: it flung itself back some feet as if pushed or shot, and its bat wings flapped like loose sails, and then it slid down out of the sky into some trees that were beyond other trees, that were beyond houses, that were beyond trees.
We went looking for it, but it was gone. It had fallen somewhere in a neighborhood of short streets, in one of a hundred little back yards.