Family Matters


  • Puppets – This was especially a problem when I lived in Prague for three months. There are neighborhoods in Old Town where display after display of marionettes line the streets. It was really unnerving because, as everybody knows, puppets come to life at night and hang over your bed to watch you sleep.
  • Raccoons - It’s their little hands, and the way they rub them together. They’re super creepy. I think this stems from childhood, when the top floor of my grandparents’ four-story house was inhabited by three destructive raccoons and I was forbidden to go up there.
  • Possums - Tail like a rat, pointy teeth and snout, hisses at you. A couple of weeks ago my mom came home from her honeymoon in New Zealand and she brought me back socks that are a blend of merino wool and possum “fibre.” They give me the heebie-jeebies, but I forced myself to wear them once.
  • Attic of my childhood home – It’s over the garage, and to get up there you have to pull on a cord, then unfold the rickety ladder and climb up it. I hate that ladder. Then once you’re up there, you have to be very careful to walk on the beams only, because the floor is just drywall and you’d plummet right through it. There is also the strong possibility of mice. Our Christmas decorations are stored up there, and one time my parents asked me to go up and get the boxes and start decorating the tree before they got home. They came back and found me in tears, unable to make myself climb more than halfway up the ladder.
  • Escalators – Oh, I use them. But I don’t like them. Regular stairs don’t have to have an emergency button.
  • Check Into Cash commercials – Okay, this is the weirdest one. Check Into Cash is some payday loan business. During the commercial, people repeatedly say “Check Into Cash.” As they say it they draw a checkmark in the air with their finger, and it’s animated to draw an actual red checkmark that appears on-screen and, if I remember correctly, it sort of shimmers. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares, right? But I actually have to change the channel or leave the room while it plays, it gives me the willies so badly. It might be on YouTube, but I can’t look it up for you guys because that would involve seeing it.

I’ve been a horribly inconsistent blogger, so in penance I’ll admit something embarrassing. I spent my evening listening to Kenny G’s Christmas album while my dad taught me how to dance the foxtrot. Beat that! The only possibly way it could have been dorkier is if I’d been wearing a spangled Christmas sweater.

Okay, I have to stop watching the History Channel. How’d I spend my night last night? Why, watching a documentary about different ways the End of the World As We Know It could happen. And it got me thinking apocalyptic thoughts. I was still thinking apocalyptic thoughts when my mom called. 

When I was little, we’d always have a place to meet up if we got separated. We live in different states now, so in my highly paranoid state of mind, I thought that we should have a plan in case civilization collapsed and we couldn’t communicate with each other.

“Mom, if there’s ever a nation-wide catastrophic event and we don’t have a way to get in touch with each other, just stay where you are. I’ll make my way back home to Illinois.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I just thought we should have a plan.”

“A plan for what?”

“Like, if an electromagnetic pulse wiped out all our electronics and the country descended into chaos.”

“What?”

“Well, we couldn’t use our cell phones to call each other, and our laptops would be fried. Maybe all car batteries too. So it would be hard to find each other.”

“Oh honey, I’d come find you!” my mom says reassuringly.

“No, see! That’s why we need the plan!”

My mom was on her way to a book club meeting when I called her on the phone. They were discussing “The History of Love” that night, and Mom confessed that she hadn’t gotten through more than the first half.

“Well, that’s no problem,” I said. “Just be the first person to speak up when they ask what everyone thought of the book. Take something from the beginning of the book that you actually read. From then on, you’re golden. You can sit back and nod thoughtfully for the rest of the hour.”

“And that works?”

“Please, I did it all the time in high school. It’s how I got through all my English classes.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t tell me things like that.”

So I was just in Washington, D.C., with many of the women in my family. We took a tour of the White House, which was pretty cool, but kind of underwhelming. I’d heard that one of the British royals once refered to it as a “charming little cottage,” and I can’t disagree. It’s rather small and ever-so-slightly dingy.

But I suppose it befits a democratic nation for our leader’s house to be fairly humble. When I visited the Tower of London a few years ago, the crown jewels made me feel kind of ill. The sprinkling of gold trimmings in the White House were in the amateur leagues, like, “Awww! Look who’s trying to be a big powerful country!”

I couldn’t help thinking back to a cathedral in Prague, whose decorations can best be described as gold-plated gold dipped in gold with gold underpinnings in a gold wash. There were cherubs in there that were the art equivalent of a crime against humanity.

Sweet and LowThe history behind the little pink packets my grandmother used to lift from restaurants is a strange one, and Rich Cohen is a strange narrator for the story. As the disinherited grandson of Sweet ‘n Low inventors Ben and Betty Eisenstadt, “all they have left me is this story.”

The memoir follows Grandpa Ben as he invents the sugar packet (only to be screwed over by the Domino Sugar Company) then Sweet ‘n Low, weathers the anti-saccharine campaign by the FDA in the ’70s, only to be busted for mob corruption in the ’90s. Yes! Sweet ‘n Low was under federal investigation. Think about that the next time you’re sweetening your coffee. The final section of the book deals with the disinheritance of Cohen’s mother, the once-favorite daughter, for reasons that seem unclear even to the participants.

“To be disinherited is to be set free,” writes Cohen. It’s a theme he returns to several times during the book, that to be without family is to be free. To be encumbered by family is to be trapped, tied down, smothered to death by loving arms.

It’s the five-mile-walk-to-school-uphill-both ways story that your grandfather tells to make you feel weak and lazy….I sometimes think a family is no more than a collection of such stories, a chronicle that locks you down like the safety bar that crosses your lap before the roller-coaster leaves the platform, without which you would fly away in the turns.

But his memoir isn’t filled with bitterness as much as it’s filled with exasperated love for family members fantastic in their weirdness.

When I was briefing my brother-in-law on his new family and told him that [Aunt] Gladys had not left the house since the Nixon administration, he said, “You mean mostly she stays in the house but now and then she leaves the house to go to the store?” I said, “I mean mostly she stays in her room but now and then she leaves her room to go to the bathroom.”

Or his grandmother Betty:

[Her brother's] birth taught Betty lessons she would follow for the rest of her life: that boys are better than girls, that love is finite, that love is coal, and there is a shortage, and there will never be enough to go around.

And his uncle Marvin (or, as he insisted on being called, “Marvelous”):

He said he had been prescribed a pill for fading memory, but told me he forgets to take it. He does remember that he forgets, which struck me as suspicious.

It’s also a love letter to Brooklyn. I was born without the New York City gene. It’s never been my dream to live there, nor have I ever bothered to visit friends while they were living there. The only part of NYC I’ve set foot in is the JFK airport. I spent a summer during college in Ireland with a group of NYU students, and I was left with the impression that the only topic of interest for people from New York is New York restaurants.

But a lot of Midwestern kids (especially in their high school years) have a dream, a longing, an infatuation with New York City that borders on the pathological. Rich Cohen is one of these. He was born and grew up in Illinois, but his extended family lived in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is another character, another quirky family member who helped shape the trajectory of the company. Even I grew to have some affection for it.

Verdict: 8.5 out of 10 for lyrical prose and funny-from-the-outside family drama.

It’s a dicey business to write non-fiction about people who are still alive to refute everything you’ve said about them. Cohen wrote an article on Slate.com called “Just Screw It: How I told my family I was writing about our feud over the Sweet ‘n Low fortune” that’s well worth a read.