Saturday, July 29, 2017

Goy Troubles

I have a friend who doesn't like Amy Tan at all. Not even one bit. Which doesn't particularly affect my life-- I've never read a word of Amy Tan and don't particularly have an opinion one way or the other. But nevertheless, when he told me this, I felt the inward tremor of guilt and self-doubt. Because my friend is Chinese-American, and when he told me exactly why he doesn't like Amy Tan, I realized that -- as indifferent as I may be to her novels -- there is a vast corpus of material that I do like -- nay, adore -- that could theoretically be held up for the same type of criticism. I refer to the audio archives of This American Life. If this is seeming like a stretch to you so far, well, bear in mind that I have a particularly acute -- well-developed, shall we say -- ability to invent reasons for guilt and self-doubt. Also, keep reading. Maybe this will start to make more sense (though probably not much).

This American Life is an endlessly fascinating and wonderful cultural artifact, from its title on down. It lays claim at the outset to a kind of universality. You tune in for the first time and you hear the name of the show, you learn that we're talking about American life here, so you make some starting assumptions as to subject matter. Steeples. Cornfields. Gas stations. Presumably that's the kind of thing we'll be hearing about. Except that a voice comes over to guide you softly into the sly, winsome theme of today's episode, and it doesn't sound like any of those things. It's a voice that sounds like Ira Glass, and there's nothing in the world quite like it. It's a voice that is alternatively rushing through words and stalling unnaturally in the midst of sentences. Heyeverybody... thisweekonourshow... therecomesatime... inallourlives... It's a voice that, when it comes back in every ten minutes, reminds you that you're listening to something called This Americang Life. Or maybe, This American Glife.

And then the story-tellers start in, and you quickly discover that everyone who leads an "American Life" happens to be an urban intellectual struggling to make a name in some creative field and who is somehow-- by reason of personality or identity group -- a bit out of joint with the dominant culture. In short, they are you. We're not going to be meeting any "ordinary Americans" here. We're going to be inducted from afar -- and only while the hour lasts -- into the secret society that you, the young listener, always thought that you really ought to be a part of, and maybe that you already were a part of, in spirit. A world where everyone is Jewish, or gay, or Canadian (or all three, RIP David Rakoff). Or they are from some other immigrant background. Just like you. Even if you are none of those things, young listener, you really feel as though you were, deep down, because you too, somehow, do not quite fit in. There is some iron curtain separating you as well from the crass gentile world. You belong elsewhere. "[L]et's face it, in New York City, I'm a Jewish guy with dark hair who works in publishing with a gift for the gab. I meet myself coming and going 12 to 14 times an hour," said David Rakoff. And you think -- My people! How on earth did they all find each other, and leave me out?

And the stories they relate? They are all those universal American experiences, that none of us could avoid growing up. Discovering our latent sexual identity at our Labor Zionist sleep away camp. That time we tried to join the Israeli army. Everything that went wrong with our first ever conceptual art piece. And maybe, again, we didn't exactly do any of those things, but we feel we did, in a higher sense. Maybe in another life.

And suddenly that title makes a whole different kind of sense. It's not "American Life." (There are a lot of Americans who wouldn't recognize a sentence of this as their own experience.) It's This American Life. A particular kind. It's hip. It's knowing. It's you.

In short, there is something about it that makes me -- WASP male, who has to refer back to a handful of nineteenth century Scotsmen and Welsh to get to my immigrant ancestors -- feel as if these stories were more my stories than my actual story. Perhaps because it is the story of modernity, which all of us with some liberal, intellectual, or artistic inklings enact or try to enact in our own lives, if only out of a desire for ideological consistency. The quintessential This American Life segment goes something like this -- mordant Jewish writer reflects back on a rite of passage that went awry through their own social ineptitude (the TAL narrator is never the victim of circumstance -- always of their own neuroses). Frequently there are wacky relatives involved, who are generally far fewer degrees removed from the old country than our narrator. I have described this in the abstract, in order to arrive at an ideal type of a TAL episode, but I'm realizing as I do so that there is a specific Jonathan Goldstein segment, about a home video of a Rosh Hoshanah dinner, that pretty much encapsulates it.

The narrator of the TAL segment is, of course, an adult. They have already made their escape from whatever reality they are describing. They are living in some idealized urban setting (ideal to the listener, who longs to be someplace scrappy, someplace where they will be tested, as opposed to the dull suburban surroundings in which they are currently growing up -- not so ideal to the narrator). This narrator has spent their career so far passing through various day jobs at the outermost fringes of the creative professions -- Macy's elf, à la Sedaris, or window-box Freud, à la Rakoff. And at the end of the journey they have discovered that really their greatest creative talent -- the one we have all made our monthly public radio contributions to hear -- is to tell wry, self-deprecating stories that are smart and devious and hilarious.

When these narrators describe to you their childhood experiences, the disastrous Bar Mitzvah and their uproarious relatives, they draw on a heady brew of mixed emotions. They are looking back on their mortifying adolescence from the position of safety in adulthood. At the same time, they have never, and can never, truly escape. They are dreadfully embarrassed by the wacky relatives. And yet there is an affection, and a kind of pride too, in reviewing their antics -- partly of the "I survived this" variety, but also of the "I bet you don't have relatives this interesting" sort. They cannot escape the past and they do not ultimately want to. They are people who made it all the way to grown-up-hood. They made it to New York City. They made it to WBEZ Chicago. They made their exit. And yet, now that they are finally famous enough to be on radio, now that they finally have a microphone in front of their face, what do they do? They talk about their mortifying home life, their wacky relatives.

This was not exactly my experience of life. Not my "real" life, anyways. My relatives are not especially wacky, at least not in a way that is redolent of the old world and would translate well to a radio audience. My parents persistently failed to provide me with sufficient material for mordant satire while I was growing up, much to my dismay. Sure, we have our embarrassing family moments, but with Sandra Tsing Loh's naked hand-standing father and theatrical mother declaring "We're going to Ethiopia this year!" we really could not compete (granted, that's a high bar).

But the TAL approach did reflect what I thought my life was supposed to be like, as an "intellectual," as an "outsider," as I assumed I was. And when it came time for me -- as an intern minister -- to start delivering sermons, it was to the TAL archive that I went -- however subconsciously -- in order to mine a certain aesthetic. I wanted to tell stories from the pulpit that were funny, but where the humor was entirely at my own expense. I wanted the comedy to be etched with pain, so that the whole thing moved imperceptibly from laughter into learning -- into the winsome truth I uncovered, or that was revealed to me by the experience, just like in a TAL segment. It's like in a Jean Shepherd story -- another central stylistic influence in this regard, from whom I learned, shall we call it, the mock-heroic style of describing one's childhood, where one keeps up an ironic distance from the events described, and for this very reason is not afraid to allow the emotions to swell into astonishing, frightening, childhood proportions. There's that moment in Shepherd's "Lost at C," say, when the narrator has managed to bamboozle his family into thinking he's much better at math than he is, and he is aware that he is about to be unmasked as a liar and cheat by his next test, and he is watching his parents and younger brother all gathered around the Christmas tree for the holidays and unwrapping presents and he thinks how innocent they all are, and how innocent he once was, and how he once had been able to partake in their simple joys-- and one suddenly forgets in reading all this whether it is supposed to be funny or not, because it is funny, the emotions are so disproportionate to the problem, and yet this is exactly how things actually feel at that age.

In short, Sandra Tsing Loh, David Rakoff, David Sedaris, c'est moi. Or so it always felt. And this is just what bothers my Chinese-American friend about TAL. Or at least, this is what I'm worried might bother him about TAL, on the strength of the mental analogy I've just drawn (maybe incorrectly) to what bothers him about Amy Tan.

Amy Tan (I'm imagining) tells funny stories about her Fobby immigrant relatives, from the vantage point of an adult writer who has managed to forge an identity and name for herself within the dominant, "mainstream," English-speaking American culture. (And even, let's say, if that's not what Amy Tan actually does -- I have no idea, I haven't read her books -- this is what my friend believes she does (note -- he has not read her books either), and so we might as well use her here as a convenient stand-in for the larger problem-- sorry, Amy Tan!) The result of all this is that the WASP folks who are settling in to read The Joy-Luck Club get to feel like: "Oh wow! Here's this lady writing about the Chinese immigrant experience -- something I know nothing about -- and yet, now that I read this, I do feel that I know it. I feel that I know her. I relate so well to this story. I must be an unusually broad-minded and capacious person. I contain multitudes."

But meanwhile, my friend is sitting there thinking: of course you WASPs 'relate' to this story -- you relate to it because Amy Tan has sold us all out! She's playing straight into your liberal individualist narrative. She's telling you exactly what you want to hear, the one story that you are able to hear. It's the story of the writer who assimilated to your culture, who plays by your rules, and is willing to divulge all the embarrassing and unflattering things about us that you want to hear, even though it means a betrayal of her own family and people. It's the tired old story of the enlightened "modern" going back to report on her "backward," non-Western ancestors.

When I had heard out my friend's reasoning about this, in so many words, you can perhaps see why my passion for This American Life suddenly came to seem potentially suspect, at least in my mind. Did I enjoy the story of the modern Jewish intellectual who is alienated from his less acculturated working class relatives in part because it seems to legitimize the path of assimilation, and hence the dominant WASP culture, of which I am a part? Is it possible that what I had taken for an act of empathic communion with experiences not my own was actually just the opposite -- was me reaffirming the superiority of my experiences, outlook, intellectual presuppositions and way of life?

Here I was thinking that I had related so well to these stories because I too was an "outsider" -- but maybe, my friend's critique implied, I related to them precisely because I was an insider. And the narrators were inside too, but only recently, and were looking back with vague embarrassment and fascination at their family members who were still outside. They had all become "white" -- like me -- but more recently in their family history than my ancestors did.

It is worth noting here that, in addition to the more familiar variety of TAL story about "My Wacky Jewish Relatives," there is also a growing sub-genre of the "wacky Asian relatives" story. Sandra Tsing Loh, already mentioned, is of course the exemplar of what I have in mind. Her father runs around naked in public. Her father is the ultimate skinflint. Her father "believed all his children had to get PhDs in engineering from Stanford or else we'd starve in the streets." In one story about her father's mail-order brides from China, we approach the level of meta-commentary on this phenomenon, from the father in question. "I am just your crazy old Chinese father," he remarks, conveying his sense of how his daughter perceives him. (In fairness, Loh's mother was German, not Chinese, and frequently gives the dad a run for his money in terms of the theater of the absurd, whenever she appears in Loh's tales.) But this isn't the only example. Apart from Sandra Tsing Loh, there is a somewhat less rumbustious version of the genre in Lulu Wang's story about her grandmother. I was going to mention Stephanie Foo as well, but while she has relatives that are wacky, and that are Asian, I wouldn't say that the two traits have anything to do with one another in her hands. The humor does not arise from the clash of cultural differences.

This sub-genre is a new enough creation that people can understand more readily why it might make my friend uneasy. The idea that this type of storytelling might once have been seen as controversial in the Jewish community as well is more difficult to recover. You don't need me to tell you that self-deprecating Jewish humor is a thing. Indeed, it has come to be perceived by some as a quintessentially Jewish cultural product. No one these days listening to mortifying and hilarious TAL stories about the writer's Jewish relatives perceives them as a sop to WASP audiences, or as an attempt to further assimilate. Indeed, they often seem like just the opposite -- as a delightful owning of Jewish identity, as a laying claim to mastery in a distinct cultural genre, and maybe even as a reminder to the goy listener that "Hey, I may look like you, I may sound like you, I may have gone to the same schools you did, but this is who I really am, these are my family and people."

And yet it was not always so. Recall that Philip Roth was accused precisely of being a sell-out -- an Amy Tan, if you will --  for what he got up to in his early novels. Some did not take kindly to the obscene Freudian monologue of Portnoy's Complaint, or to his talking about bourgeois Jewish girls getting plastic surgery on their noses in Goodbye, Columbus. Roth uses the later novel The Ghost Writer (1979) to reflect back on the experience of how his early works were received. His alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, bases his first novel on an embarrassing and tragicomic family episode, involving a dispute over money and -- eventually -- a hammer. Zuckerman's relatives are upset, including even his patient-minded father.
"[F]rom a lifetime of experience I happen to know what ordinary people will think when they read something like this story. And you don't," he says. "You can't. You've been sheltered from it all your life. You were raised here in this neighborhood where you went to school with Jewish children. [...] It's not your fault that you don't know what Gentiles think when they read something like this. But I can tell you. They don't think about how it's a great work of art. [...] I wonder if you fully understand how little love there is in this world for Jewish people. [...] I mean in run-of-the-mill Americans, Mr. and Mrs. Nice Guy, who otherwise you and I consider perfectly harmless." 
Nathan's defense in the face of his father's criticism is that it is all true. Just like Sandra Tsing Loh's stories are all true. He's not making this stuff up. Everything in his novel really happened. But his father wants to know why he would emphasize the unsavory details, of all those he could have chosen? Judge Leopold Wapter as well, another character in the novel, who once wrote Nathan Zuckerman a recommendation to attend college, raises similar objections. In a coyly malicious questionnaire that he directs to Nathan, at the bottom of a facially polite letter, he asks: "What set of aesthetic values makes you think that the cheap is more valid than the noble and the slimy is more truthful than the sublime?" One is reminded of the furor that greeting Michelangelo Antonioni's documentary about China, in the country where it was filmed -- at least according to Susan Sontag's account of it in On Photography. People wanted to know why Antonioni would take pictures of people without their knowing, and while they were doing such mundane and even embarrassing things. Sure, everything he recorded was accurate. It all actually happened. But why did he film people unawares? Why didn't he give them a chance first to look their best?

Plus, Zuckerman's father wants to know, didn't Nathan realize that his people were in danger? That there were enemies about? Thus, the question was not only why would he betray his own family and kind, but why he would kick them while they were already down? Why didn't he focus on the more admirable aspects of the family story? Why would he choose to reveal the most mortifying episodes -- and not only that -- but the ones that play into the worst stereotypes? Why wouldn't he tell the story of "immigrants like Chaya [a different relative] who worked and saved and sacrificed to get a decent footing in America"? (One is reminded of how bothered Mario Puzo reportedly was by the fact that it was The Godfather that made him a fortune, even though it really had nothing to do with his own family's experience as Italian immigrants -- and had to be researched through newspapers, whereas the serious novel he had published earlier in his career about his hardworking and honest mother never came anywhere near the bestseller list.)

My friend's dislike of Amy Tan and its similarity to Nathan's father's suspicion of his son's creation is only one of several parallels between the Jewish and Chinese-American experiences that one starts to notice when one is reading Roth. You also pick up on the fear among Roth's characters of the "Jewish quotas," for instance, which once barred the doors of many institutions of higher learning in this country to many talented students (the narrator of The Ghost Writer describes "the injustice of medical-school quotas" as one of the most frequent topics of conversation around the family dinner table). Well, these have made a disturbing comeback in our society at many elite schools. While the widely acknowledged bias against East Asian students in college admissions is now politely framed as an effort to ensure "diversity," the Anti-Semitic university administrators of yesteryear could well have claimed the same thing. As my friend said, drawing the comparison, "The assumption is that it would somehow be a bad thing to have a huge number of Asian students in a class, just like they used to say it would be bad to have too many Jewish students." I had to think about that for a few minutes before I realized he was completely right. There really wasn't any defense of these policies.

Another parallel between the two experiences, closely related to the first, is the way in which the reality of widespread discrimination leads to an urgent need for formal qualifications that cannot possibly be disputed. To someone like me, who grew up WASP, the pressure Sandra Loh describes from her father to get a PhD in engineering from Stanford seems maniacally overzealous. It seems that way to her as well, hence the laughs we share over her version of events. The worldview of the "Tiger Father" archetype that Sandra Loh's dad embodies starts to make more sense, however, when it is framed against what he likely experienced in this country as a first generation immigrant -- against a context in which getting by simply on "personality" or "charm" is often code for racial or cultural prejudice. If you have actually had the experience of being boxed out of opportunities just because of what you look like and where you come from, the need for verifiable degrees and expertise suddenly becomes real and pressing indeed.

This is certainly something that was felt in the Jewish community -- especially in the days when Anti-Semtism was more widespread and undisguised. “Be a good boy, get good marks, be smart, go to college, become a doctor,” as Norman Podhoretz describes the constant drone of his inner monologue as a child, in a classic essay from his still-liberal period. Or, as Roth puts it in The Human Stain, describing the words of a repellant comic character who is trying to get the protagonist to throw a major upcoming test in order to improve his son's standing in the class rank: "Dr. Fensterman explained [...] that Bert wanted to follow his father into medicine, but that to do it it was essential for him to have a perfect record, and not merely perfect in college, but extraordinary going back to kindergarten. Perhaps the Silks were not aware of the discriminatory quotas that were used to keep Jews out of medical school..."

It is probably only to the second- or third-generation offspring of the Fenstermans or the Lohs, who have assimilated more and have fewer lived experiences of discrimination, that such attitudes seem ludicrous. These have started to live within the dominant value system, according to which one should "follow one's interests" and one is sure to "find your way." In the environment in which these attitudes were formed, however, they were an accurate description of what it takes to survive. The newer generations may be able to build upon the relative privilege that was gradually wrung by their immigrant ancestors -- by, in short, all those Stanford PhDs and medical diplomas -- in order to lead the more freewheeling "American" lifestyle. They can, like Sandra Tsing Loh, stand on the side of a freeway with a piano distributing dollars as part of a performance art piece. They can, like Roth and Podhoretz, become writers and other creative professionals. They can, like the narrators of a This American Life episode, tell wacky stories about their relatives to the broader public. But this is precisely why, to my friend, it seems like such a betrayal. They are making fun of the very people who allowed them to be in the position they have attained -- the "enlightened" position from which they can now tell such wry and winning anecdotes about the picturesque people who preceded them. It is ingratitude, in brief. It is choosing oneself over the people who gave you life and opportunity, in my friend's view. It is the bitter and haunting end scene of Ozu's Tokyo Story, when the loyal daughter-in-law is explaining to her niece that all grown-up children will eventually forsake their parents. "Isn't life disappointing." says the niece. "Yes, it is," she replies.

For my friend, the self-deprecating story-telling about one's family does not have the ring of love, the way it does for me. Whenever I told a really blush-inducing anecdote from the pulpit about my own people, I would always call up my mom and dad beforehand and regale them with it, and we'd share a laugh. But then, we're part of the dominant culture. We're not trying to guard details that could be used against us. We're not having to confront negative stereotypes every day. So it's really not the same thing.

Okay, okay, so I see my friend's point. But I also think it doesn't quite do justice to the affection that is very present and real in these TAL stories. Nor does it account for the almost, well, envy that they inspire. We are in a sense talking past each other here. My friend sees in the typical TAL story only the central betrayal of liberal modernity. The tale of the individual who turns their back on their family, religion, and home in order to embrace a neutral, "enlightened," and fully self-chosen identity. And yet, for the "dominant culture" listener who may often feel that their own identities really are too abstract, and who are chafing under the constant burden of self-formation, part of the fascination of these stories is precisely that the narrators actually can't escape their roots, and don't want to. Even when they rebel, even when they tease, even when they divulge embarrassing anecdotes about their relatives, no one ever really turns their back on them, because they can't. They are, regardless of how they behave, always part of the tribe. This is a source of endless interest to those of us who have been taught that all our social bonds are voluntary -- that we choose who and what we are going to be, and who we are going to be with -- and therefore that we can lose those bonds at any time.

For a Protestant in religion, for instance, who has been drilled in the notion that one is only a member of a church so long as one "believes" the communal creed and no further, those religious bodies that are at least as much about cultural identity as they are about "faith" hold an immense appeal -- one made all the more tantalizing by the fact that no outsider can ever really join at an early enough age to gain the same kind of natural and unselfconscious sense of membership. Philo-Semitism comes into play at this point, which is what we're talking about here, since Judaism is the obvious example of the religion one cannot really leave (or really enter). Karl Marx was still Jewish, even after he'd started in on the criticism of religion as the prelude to the criticism of all society. In Roth's short story "Defender of the Faith," one of the five collected in Goodbye, Columbus, the religiously indifferent narrator is approached by his Jewish fellow soldiers in the hope that he will help them keep kosher, since his last name is Marx.

But Judaism is not the only religion that has elements of this "un-renouncable" quality. There is a bit of it in Mormonism too (worth noting here that it is another religion that refers to non-members as "gentiles"), and even more in Roman Catholicism, as it exists among contemporary Americans. No matter how often the ideologists of each try to insist that one is only truly a member so long as one ascribes to orthodox teaching, there remains and will remain the phenomenon of the lapsed Mormon, or the "cultural Catholic" who has long since ceased to believe the Nicene Creed in any concrete sense, but who has no trouble telling you what religion they are on, say, a survey form. "There is no God, and Mary is His Mother," as Robert Lowell once epitomized the stance, attributing it to George Santayana.

That odd nineteenth century novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware, is a kind of extended treatment of the longing and fixation the lonely Protestant feels before such an inextinguishable and unchosen membership in a social group. When the titular Theron Ware, a Methodist minister, first encounters the local parish priest, he is overawed by the man's style of intellectualized unbelief. This Father Forbes presents himself as an atheist with only the most thoroughly abstracted and metaphorical notions of the efficacy of the sacraments. In response to Ware's interest in the liturgy of the mass he has just witnessed, for instance, Forbes replies: "It is a very ancient ceremony [...] probably Persian, like the baptismal form, although, for that matter, we can never dig deep enough for the roots of these things. They all turn up Turanian if we probe far enough."

Ware is warned off of following in Forbe's footsteps, however, by one of the town's other Catholics, who tells him -- in effect -- that people can get away with certain lapses from orthodoxy when they are inside the fold that would be difficult to forgive outside of it.
“It was a great misfortune for you, sir, that you did not keep among your own people," this character says. "When you go among others [...] you have no proper understanding of what their sayings and doings really mean. You do not realize that they are held up by the power of the true Church, as a little child learning to walk is held up with a belt by its nurse. They can say and do things, and no harm at all come to them, which would mean destruction to you, because they have help, and you are walking alone."
My friend sees only the desire to confirm the validity of Protestant individualism in the TAL stories, but Theron Ware points to another aspect. The prodigal sons and daughters who are always relating these stories still, like Father Forbes, "have help." They are not "walking alone." Their individualism is not absolute. They remain part of a larger identity group. Indeed, much that is often difficult for WASPs like me to understand about other folks' attitudes and experiences can be accounted for at least in part by remembering that they may have a sense of collective belonging that isn't so relentlessly tied to individual choice or worthiness. My friend tells me sometimes about the rather bald and frank assessments he receives from relatives, and I say to him things like: "Dude, if my parents ever said that to me, it would be a major episode. I'd be emotionally incapacitated for weeks." He usually shrugs. I think I know why it doesn't have this devastating effect on him, though, in light of all this -- it's because it's not all on him. The criticism does not mean that he as an individual has failed. Both the failure and success of the members of the family unit are collective. Whereas in my world, an assessment like that would be in large part a judgment on me personally. Which certainly has its disadvantages.

Thus, I read Philip Roth when I was in high school not because I wanted to laugh at families that were so different from mine. I read because I wanted to be Philip Roth. The suffocating family dynamics portrayed in the comic rantings of Portnoy's Complaint are supposed to be a "nightmare," and were treated as such by those who attacked Roth as a self-hating Jew. But to me they were actually a fantasy. Not only because I really wouldn't have minded my mother saying things about me like: "This bonditt? He doesn't even have to open a book -- 'A' in everything. Albert Einstein the second!" (as Alexander's doting mother declares of him, and which is presented as mortifying). Not even just because by satirizing his older relatives, Roth confirmed me in that great hope that every teenager cherishes, that they are somehow just light-years ahead of their parents in terms of sophistication, in one way or another. More than either of these things, it was because Roth knew what he was. He was so convinced of what he was that he could actually mock it, while knowing he could never lose it. Which for a teenager is an immensely appealing idea. My friend saw only the repudiation implicit in this genre of writing, not the strength of the underlying bond that makes that apparent repudiation possible. It is only when we know that we love our people, and that they love us, that we don't feel the need to overpraise them and treat them with kid-gloves.

I wanted to live this Roth/TAL-style life of constant dialectical rebellion and return. I wanted to be -- indeed I was -- the sort of kid who declares, like the teenaged Alexander Portnoy: "Religion is the opiate of the people! And if that makes me a fourteen-year-old communist, then that's what I am." He then threatens to move to the Soviet Union. And as much as this is a revolt against his Jewishness, it is also a reaffirmation of it, and of his rejection of the goyische dominant culture. The Jewish radical was and is a recognized identity. Many of the TAL contributors -- thinking of Rakoff in particular here -- have some memory of the collective singing of the "Internationale" in their past. Rakoff in one story describes his young Bundist friends all getting together and plotting to violate the sabbath and eat pork in order to show their devotion to secular socialism. But how was I to explain myself to myself, in this way? Why did I not fit in, either? Why did I too feel I was set apart from the gentile world? Why did I also long to be a socialist and a Marxist and what have you? Why did I feel that manic urgency as a teenager to attend the University of Chicago -- where the fictional Nathan Zuckerman went to school, for what it's worth. Where Judge Leopold Wapter's letter of recommendation helped open the door of higher learning for the young aspiring writer. In the city where WBEZ Chicago lives. The school Susan Sontag attended. Where Ira Glass's famous cousin, Philip Glass, went to college too. And Sarah Koenig, A.B. 1990. Why is it that so many of the people in this world who have ever made sense to me are Jewish? It's true, I did that incomprehensibly goyische thing after college of going to "divinity school," but then I wind up with my two most lasting friendships coming out of the place being with a Chinese-American guy and someone who's half-Jewish and all Quaker. Seldom at any chapter of my life have I gravitated in friendship toward the people who are theoretically my people, at least according to demography, the WASPs.

I can't help it. My parents listened to public radio. We had a CD at home of some early This American Life episodes. They read to me from Jean Shepherd. These forces combined must have spoiled the gentile world for me. I found that it was simply not very interesting. It lacked a sense of humor. It hadn't learned to appreciate its own absurdity. It was not constantly drawing attention to itself by an endless series of creative projects.

Perhaps the non-Jewish Shepherd points the way to a solution to the riddle. Perhaps the Midwestern sensibility and the Jewish one are really somehow the same at heart. It would certainly explain the aesthetic of National Public Radio, which seems to have been forged simultaneously in too great furnaces of relentless self-deprecation -- Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the suburbs of Baltimore.

And then there was the fact that the other members of my family also went to the University of Chicago, for some reason. And that we are Unitarian Universalists. And somehow, even though it doesn't all hang together as an ideological whole, it forms a network of minor degrees of separation that all make cultural sense. Draw a line from any part of my life and it will eventually connect Chicago, the Midwest, public radio, and American liberalism. But by that point, we're not even talking about a mystery any more. We're just talking about the different factors that made me who I am. And we've discovered that I could not have been otherwise. We've come up with one more American life. Seeyounextweekeverybody.

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