ReBlog: McSweeny’s “A Rejected Essay to NPR’s ‘This I Believe'”

A REJECTED SUBMISSION TO NPR’S “THIS I BELIEVE.”

BY 

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I believe fat cats make good pillows. They are round. Soft. Firm yet resilient. They naturally cradle the head, provide unparalleled neck support, and promote vigorous digestion. Fat cats, when not functioning as pillows, are not otherwise particularly useful. Certainly they can prop open a door, or hold down a newspaper on a windy day. But cannot a rotund pussycat aspire to more? This is why I believe fat cats should be drafted into service of the uncradled and pillowless: every creature deserves the opportunity to rise to his or her highest and best use.

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This is why I also believe that instant coffee deserves a place in the pantheon of socially acceptable beverages. History has burdened it with a heavy cross: the name “coffee,” which stirs certain expectations of aroma, depth of flavor, and heartiness. But names are mere artifacts of history; they do not emanate naturally from the things they represent. Do we malign French toast because it is neither French nor toast? Do we malign the noble Pekingese dog even though she is probably actually Pekingese-American, and even though Peking does not actually exist? As Edward Said so brilliantly showed inOrientalism, names reveal more about the namer than the named. Someone utters the words “instant coffee” and a diverse landscape of flavor crystals, each with his or her own unique qualities and histories, now comes into being as a class. Thusly lumped, the crystals can be set beside their whole-bean half sisters and ruled the inferior. Instant coffee cannot judge; it is only judged. It cannot taste; it is only tasted. That is why I believe the thingness of instant coffee must be sliced away from the name imposed upon it by outsiders. Like any living creature, it must be judged on its own merits.

Which is why I believe the phrase “the writing life” should not exist. I don’t know who came up with this treacly trope, so redolent of cats on the lap and tea steaming in the mug. So evocative of gazing out the window thinking writerly thoughts, such as “What is the meaning of life?” or “Now that Inspector Bunchybottoms has discovered the meat cleaver behind the potted palm, whatever shall she do next?” or “My butt is sore. I want a sandwich.” Writing, however, is not life. It’s not even very much fun. It’s like standing in a dark cave with an entire colony of Mexican fruit bats and trying to catch them with a butterfly net. They’re zooming here and swooping there; they’re smacking you with their wings. They’re getting tangled in your hair, they probably have rabies, and they want to suck your blood, but you just keep swinging the net over and over and over, and yet the net remains empty. If, wonder of wonders, you do catch a bat, you will bask blissfully in the knowledge that you have netted the most perfect specimen of Chiroptera ever known. You’ll bask for exactly five minutes. Then you’ll start worrying that you’ll have no one to admire your bat, your perfect, perfect bat. Or, if you do, that people will think it’s a sucky bat, or that it should have been bigger, or furrier. Or that Jonathan Franzen’s bat was better, even though you know your bat was every bit as squeaky and fuzzy and crinkly-nosed as any other bat. So then you realize that world just isn’t fair. But then you realize your bat does, in fact, suck. Then you realize your bat is actually a fine, fine bat but the problem is that the world doesn’t actually need any more bats, so maybe you should just put down the net and take up needlepoint. Of course, if there’s anything worse than a writer preening about writing, it’s a writer bitching about writing, which is why I believe writers really just shouldn’t talk at all.

And that is why I believe I should abandon this essay and go make a sandwich. I believe the best sandwiches are made on toast. I believe they include hummus, and sprouts, and perhaps a tomato. But, above all, I believe the best sandwiches are served with a pickle. The fact that so many sandwiches these days go pickleless indicates nothing less than a civilization in decline. Back when I was young, a cook would no sooner send a pickleless plate out of a kitchen than he would show up to work in a scuba suit. Those days are long gone, and whither goeth the pickle so too goeth our decency. Soon we will see Mexican beers served without lime wedges, and strawberry daiquiris served without those tiny, fragile paper umbrellas. This is why I believe that all sandwiches, everywhere, should go nowhere without a pickle. In fact, not only pickles but every asset of this great nation must be put toward its highest and best use immediately and without further ado. This is why I believe that fat cats make good pillows. They offer rest for the weary. They are flavor crystals for the soul. Metaphoric pickles for the metaphorically pickleless. They have no higher calling. We have no greater need. This I believe.