Introduction: Why I Hate Authority
What am I doing writing a book?
I can't sit still for that long.
For reasons that now escape me, I wanted to be a foreign service officer. Who knows, maybe I thought it was glamorous, or maybe the idea of travel just appealed to me. (I doubt I was really interested in shaping American foreign policy; that sounded too much like work.) I soon discovered how many requirements there were to qualify for a job in foreign service, and that's when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, because there were no requirements. All you had to say was, "I am a writer," and you became one. You didn't even have to write anything. You could just sit in a coffee shop with a notebook and stare into space, with a slightly bemused look on your face, judging the weight of the world with a jaundiced eye. As you can see, you can be completely full of shit and still be a writer. Okay, maybe that's the one requirement.
I also thought it was going to be a great way to meet girls, but it wasn't — probably because as I was staring into space, I no doubt looked mildly retarded. You see, I wanted to write plays, which in retrospect is a lot harder than learning Mandarin, I think. How I ended up in this delusional state shall be saved for another time.
Eventually I began to fill the pages in front of me with words. It was exciting. It was romantic. And yet I felt like I was losing my mind, listening to voices in my head while trying to overcome years of lethargy by sitting and stewing in my own juices for hours. My brain was constantly humming with a little voice that would cry out, "Are you insane? Who would want to read this drivel of yours, let alone perform it? There are real jobs even you can do and contribute to society. You are insane, aren't you? You just want to end up in an asylum somewhere, where they will take care of you." And in the twenty or so years that I wrote plays, I made less than I would have if I had chosen to be a migrant worker.
And so after years of playwriting, I became a successful comic. Go figure. So imagine my surprise when Steve, my agent, called and asked me if I wanted to write a book. Without hesitation I said, "Of course I want to write a book." But my brain was shouting, "You're insane."
Doesn't everyone feel they can write a book? Doesn't everyone feel that with just a few tens of thousands of well-chosen words they could put the earth right back onto its proper axis? (Maybe that's not the case nowadays; maybe everyone just wants to be on a reality TV show and have people write about them.)
With so many more places to drink coffee nowadays, I leaped at the opportunity to share my insights with the world. Ask someone to write a book and that person's ego knows no bounds.
After years of working as a comic, I know how to talk funny. But can I write funny? So that the words leap off the page in such a way that the reader is filled with glee? You don't know till you try, and there are legions of critics ready to tell you that you aren't funny in the least.
So what was I going to write about...? Certainly not politics, as the shelves are filled with wonderfully funny works that have successfully covered that subject, by writers from Art Buchwald to P. J. O'Rourke to Michael Moore.
I am no David Sedaris or Dave Barry or Mark Twain. Jesus, Mark Twain — not only was he funny, but he's dead and he's still funny.
I picked up a cup of coffee and stared off into space. It's not so romantic when you actually have to have thoughts and write them down, especially now that I apparently had a severe case of ADD. My head just couldn't wrap itself around a topic, because I got bored immediately with any topic that came to mind. In my desperation to come up with an appropriate subject, I even considered writing about interior decorating, which I know nothing about.
Then one day, while sitting on a plane, headed to God knows where, I had a revelation. I am constantly in the air sitting next to guys who are about my age, and they talk to me as if I am twenty years younger than they are. And they seem twenty years older than I am. They always seem to have sticks up their asses. Where was my stick, I wondered? Where did the stick come from? Was there something inherent in being an adult that I had missed? Why did so many of my generation seem to have gone on to become joyless and officious snots? How could Dick Cheney and George W. Bush be around my age and yet it was as if we were living in parallel universes? Was there something wrong with me that when I heard the words "get on board" I would rather drown? It's not a question of politics. It's deeper than that. It has to do with our points of view, the way we look at the world. Where did mine come from?
That's what this book is about. Maybe I am emotionally stunted, but by the time I was in my early twenties I had developed the way I look at life, and it hasn't changed much since then.
This is the road I traveled, as I remember it — which may not always be accurate, since as I have gotten older my memory has become a blender.
And so we begin.
Copyright © 2005 by Lewis Black
Suburbia "Everybody knows this is nowhere."
— Neil Young
I was born in Washington, D.C., on August 30, 1948. For those of you who believe in such things, my birth date makes me a Virgo, the sign of the anal-retentive. The sign kind of sucks, really, and I don't know if it has helped or hindered me, but I am sure the stars do more than twinkle.
I was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. Of course, there is no spring there, and I can assure you no one was mining for silver. Its only claim to fame is that it is the largest unincorporated city in America. In other words, we were too lazy to govern ourselves. Our town motto was "I'd like to vote, but I don't feel like driving."
Silver Spring is a suburb of Washington, D.C., and all suburbs are identical. The houses may vary in size and design, but the game is the same. Everyone has the feeling that they are living in a special space, when in fact there is nothing unique about it. Being brought up in suburbia is, therefore, like being born and raised nowhere. It is an oxygenated void. As a result, it prepares you for either depression or space travel. Have you ever heard of the great suburban writer? Well, I promise, you never will. I can just imagine how chapter three would begin....
So many leaves, so little time. I will buy a leaf blower.
Growing up in suburbia, everyone was middle class. Everyone had a lawn and a car. Everyone was white. Except for the maids, who would arrive once a week to clean up after all of us. It's what I imagine South Africa was like during apartheid. There was a wide variety of white people, though — Italians, Irish, Poles, Russians, Jews, Catholics, WASPs. It may have been sterile, but we all seemed to get along.
It was the fifties and America was booming. It was a time when father actually knew best and there was a sitcom to prove it. Elvis Presley was changing the genetic structure of America's children. There were TV dinners specially made, I guess, for watching TV.
The USSR, however, presented a bit of a problem to the idyllic suburban American lifestyle. It was our sworn enemy and it was going to bury us. They were evil — really evil, spectacularly evil. So evil, in fact, that if you had ever been a Communist, you were tainted for life, or so said Senator Joe McCarthy. Communists apparently walked among us, like aliens, ready to convert us to their heathen ways at any opportunity. The Commies were no better than child molesters. I didn't experience that level of paranoia again until I smoked pot.
I never quite grasped this concept; my family came from Russia, and if they were any indication of the Soviet mentality, I didn't think we had much to worry about. My grandfather had come to the United States in 1916 and didn't realize he was here until 1967.
Worst of all, the Soviets had the atomic bomb, and they were going to use it if they thought it was necessary. The good news was that we also had the A-bomb, and if the Ruskies got out of line, we would blow them all to kingdom come.
At school we kept getting mixed messages about the atom. It was used to create the weapon that blew the shit out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but according to a Disney cartoon, Our Friend the Atom, the atom was the best thing since sliced bread. It would, we were instructed, eventually answer any problem with which civilization was presented, including the need for mass annihilation.
It was all very confusing to my seven-year-old mind. It was a cartoon. It was really sweet. And it was Walt Disney telling me this, for God's sake. Uncle Walt! The same Walt Disney who had given me Mickey, Donald, Davy Crockett, and my first introduction to entertainment-related marketing.
It turns out that Disney produced this nonsense with the help of the US Navy and General Dynamics, the folks who built the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus, which carried nuclear missiles. Imagine Halliburton and the Department of Defense using Beauty and the Beast to sell the war in Iraq to elementary school students. In case you weren't sure, we'd be the Beauty.
I didn't know what to think. Especially given the fact that we were being shown instructional films on how to protect ourselves in case of nuclear attack. They would show us image after image of A-bomb tests and even the real deal at Hiroshima, just in case our childlike minds couldn't grasp the devastation caused by these weapons.
Other films demonstrated how to protect ourselves in case our neighborhood just happened to take a hit. And living outside Washington, D.C., that was a really good possibility — even a second grader could tell you that. These films would show a bomb blowing the ever-loving snot out of everything in sight, a fireball of epic proportions that let off a monstrous blast of heat. It turns out, though, according to the powers that be, that all you had to do to protect yourself if you couldn't find proper underground shelter in time was "duck and cover."
That's right, just duck down and cover your head, and you could survive the blast. Yeah, sure, right. Even I knew after watching these films that you might survive, but your face would no doubt melt and your nose would probably end up on your foot.
We would even have air-raid drills once a month in my school. It was, perhaps, the kindest way for the administration to remind us we could all die at any minute. So, all of my little friends and I would hide under our desks to protect ourselves. And all I could think while I was under the desk was, What are these adults who are in charge of me thinking? I am not a goddamn idiot!
We are talking about a fireball from hell, and these morons had me hiding under wood — under kindling, for God's sake! I might as well have been a rump roast in an oven. Looking back, I now know it was at this point in time that I began to regard authority with a jaded eye. I don't know what these people were thinking. Just because they were completely stupid, I was supposed to be stupid too?
If that weren't dumb enough, bomb shelters became all the rage. People were building underground cubicles in their backyards where they could hide in case of nuclear war. There, they could stow food and water and wait for the all-clear signal to sound. It looked good on paper, but the idea of spending weeks in a tiny room with my parents and brother just didn't seem worth the effort.
Not to mention the fact that there was also the possibility that those without shelters would try to break into yours. Luckily my parents had a basement, which saved us the embarrassment of building a shelter. Even though we were told to keep food supplies down there, we didn't. My parents seemed to have the same idea I did: If the bomb were dropped, then the hell with everything.
The folks who told us we could protect ourselves from a chemical attack with duct tape are the same jackasses who now run Homeland Security. Yeah, if you had enough to wrap yourself in, you could suffocate before the chemicals got to you.
So underneath the calm and peaceful serenity of the suburbs was a sense of uneasiness that pervaded our lives. It was the kind of feeling you get when you're at an elderly woman's apartment, where there is a scent of roses in the air that just barely masks the smell of death. Even though she may be giving you sweets, you still feel queasy.
Also really popular at the time were toy guns. Along with my friends Ed and Stan and a bunch of other kids, I played cowboys and Indians. This was during the Davy Crockett phase of the fifties, when every child who wore a coonskin cap was instantly transformed into an idiot wearing roadkill. We played cowboys and Indians not as some sort of racist activity — it just made the cap make sense. Besides, there are no Indians in the suburbs.
We also played war, which meant we divided up into two squads and spent the afternoon killing each other. It was splendid — and it was just as much fun killing your pals as it was when they killed you.
It should be noted at this time that not one of us ever had an interest in real guns or ever bought one. Then when it came to raising kids, my generation didn't allow them to play with guns. That's when things took an abrupt turn for the worse. I certainly wouldn't say there is a connection, and I don't know what changed in our culture, but it is strange that only a few kids play out these war fantasies in their backyards and yet there seems to be more violence among them.
On those Saturdays when we weren't pretending to protect the world from the Russian onslaught, we attended double features, usually horror films, much to our delight. But they were never as scary as we had hoped. We were like junkies for fear, always in search of a good scare. But the aliens were never alien enough and the monsters were never monstrous enough to satisfy our cravings. I don't know what drove us to return week after week, only to go home disappointed.
And God knows what we would have done if we were really scared. Our lives were nice, really nice. Maybe that forced us to crave a little of what wasn't nice, to shake us to our roots and make us pee our pants. Nothing, I guess, was scarier than the specter of a mushroom cloud.
Copyright © 2005 by Lewis Blac
My Mother "Next time, I'll raise dogs. They are more loyal and more excited to see you."
— Jeannette Black
Jeannette is her name, and she was a teacher. Actually, she wanted to be a biologist. She got her master's, but it turns out that today, her master's is just a few credits shy of being a Ph.D. She isn't happy about that. Apparently back in the late thirties and forties, when it came to education they weren't kidding around; you actually had to show real knowledge over an extended period of time and number of courses. You can't do that in today's high-speed world; people don't have the patience. "Just give me the degree and let's get on with it."
She began her teaching career in an all-black school in the District of Columbia. You see, this was in the early fifties, the heyday of an absolutely shameful segregationist policy called "separate but equal." I like to call it "separate but equal my ass." Imagine that, in our nation's capital, right in the midst of all those lawmakers. The mind reels in the face of such racist nonsense and the stupidity of the leadership that fostered it.
With her biology degree, my mother was, of course, teaching high school math. There was a curriculum in place that was supposed to be followed religiously. But my mother, being a gifted and intelligent woman who was ahead of her time, slightly modified the curriculum. She wanted to be sure her kids knew why they were learning math and give them a practical application for a science, which those kids didn't seem to have. So she would take them to stores, give them an amount of imaginary money, and ask them to figure out what they could buy with it. This also allowed her the chance to teach them to be intelligent consumers.
The powers that be found out what my mother was doing and reprimanded her for going outside the curriculum. She argued that the curriculum was a sealed vacuum unto itself, one that turned the kids off the subject entirely. Many of these students were not going to end up in college and desperately needed a practical application for math in their environment. The administration told her do it their way, and she responded by taking the highway. As you can see, by railing against authority I am hardly breaking new ground in my family.
It wasn't until my brother and I were older that she began to teach again. She became a substitute teacher for the county where we lived, which meant she spent a lot of time teaching in my high school. Talk about a potentially inflammatory situation. The last place on earth you want your mother is at your high school, and certainly not as a substitute teacher. Substitute teachers may as well walk into the classroom with targets on their backs. Being the son of one certainly puts a kid in harm's way. Kids have been beaten up with much less provocation, such as wearing green and yellow on Thursday or knowing the answer to a question that no one else did.
But I was lucky. Make that very lucky. My mother was really good in the classroom — any classroom, with any kind of kid. A lot of my fellow students didn't realize I was related to her, because they thought if she was my mom, I should have been a whole lot smarter. My mother never had any problems controlling her students because nobody, and I mean nobody — not even the snottiest peckerhead or the biggest thug — could stand up to my mother's sarcasm. It was withering and unrelenting. It came from a place deep within her DNA. Thousands of years of Jewish irritability and humor went into the genetic masterpiece that comprised my mother's snide barbs.
She could deliver a line like it was a heat-seeking missile, crushing whatever the problem might be, in an instant, amid gales of laughter. She left no prisoners. She was legendary. Students actually hoped they would get her as a substitute. After a class of hers, word would spread in the hallway of some off-the-cuff remark she had made to put down whatever wiseass was dumb enough to try to disrupt her class.
The bottom line is, my mother is funny. I mean, seriously funny. Heart-stoppingly, belly-achingly funny. Her humor comes from my grandfather, who was never happy but always funny. His three most famous quotes were: "It's a great life. You're born in Russia and they bury you in New Jersey." At the height of the Vietnam War, he said, "If I knew it was going to be like this here, I would have stayed in Russia." And when the tax men came to his business in 1967 because he never paid taxes, they said, "You have to pay taxes every year," and he responded, "Really? I didn't know."
My mother is cynical like H. L. Mencken, only while in the classroom she didn't have the luxury of crafting a line at a typewriter. She had to whip it up in real time, in front of the toughest audience on earth — high school kids. Once, a student in what was the toughest classroom at the time asked why he had to learn whatever subject she happened to be teaching that day. Without missing a beat, she said, "Because when you are pumping my gas at the Sears Station, where you have been for ten years because you didn't get your diploma, I don't want to have to waste any breath saying 'I told you so.'"
When my friends would gather at my house, my mother eventually would get around to her favorite speech. The one where she would tell us that we were never going to be any better off than our parents. That family is a wonderful thing, but ultimately it's what makes any real change impossible. We would, she would go on, all be compromised into oblivion. It was the kind of conversation that went great with snacks.
My mother didn't like to cook when I was growing up, and it showed. The food was scary at times. Vegetables would be hot on the outside and frozen in the middle. Beef was cooked to a point of appalling grayness, and gravy didn't exist. The whole idea of the happy homemaker of the fifties had made nary a dent in my mother. She found the notion preposterous. To her, being happy as a homemaker meant you needed a round of electroshock.
She once cooked a meal, however, that was so unforgettable that years later I asked her why she never cooked it again. She said it was because we liked it. There is one thing that can be said for her cooking: It prepared me for industrial cooking, that's for sure.
But my mother dished up a sense of humor that has served me in good stead, and that beats a good home-cooked meal anytime.
Copyright © 2005 by Lewis Black