By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

If one were to mathematically analyze the timing of major life decisions, not that my interests run to quantitative studies, I theorize one would find a statistically significant clustering at multiple-of-five birthdays. (If Dad heard that prediction, he would, without missing a beat, ask if I was referring to integral multiples of five. You can imagine what a trial my childhood was.) The speculation comes to mind because this all began on my twenty-fifth birthday. A quarter century: it had struck me more as a substantive fraction of a lifetime gone than as a cause for celebration.

My friends, however, were of a different mind.

At State U., even in the Soc. department, a Taco Bell run was considered a multicultural experience. I’d ranted about the local ethnocentrism often enough, so I was delighted and touched when my friends surprised me with a Japanese night out. We’re all impoverished grad students, so here “out” meant gathering in one of their apartments. How ironic was it that one of the few times they were game to try something not remotely hunk of corn-fed Midwestern beef, they picked my least favorite cuisine? The sushi wasn’t a problem, however, as there was plenty of saki with which to swig down the raw eel and yellowfin and squid, not to mention several items I didn’t recognize and decided not to ask about.

How different things might have been if only I’d masked the food with wasabi mustard instead of the rice wine.

Everyone had brought foodstuffs in my honor, so I had to sample it all. Japanese etiquette, my hostess gleefully informed me, required downing each cup of saki in one swallow—and she owned water tumblers, not delicate ceramic cups. By my third California roll, I was feeling no pain. Halfway through my gastronomic survey, I was improvising paeans to diversity. No one even tried to match drinks with the birthday boy, but we all got pretty damn mellow.

What came next seemed like a profound idea at the time: very multicultural soc. I remember plopping myself down in front of a computer, and the gales of laughter as I almost toppled off the chair. I remember guffaws at my typos and boisterous negotiations over wording. After a ceremonious clinking, but rather more like clanking, of cheap glassware, I recall clicking send to dispatch our masterpiece. Lost in an alcoholic fog, however, was the exact topic of our enthusiasm.

The project about which we had all been so enthusiastic was only a vague recollection when I awakened the next day, head throbbing and tongue furred. My only clear memory beyond dissolving raw fish in alcohol was the sadly dead-on caricature on my birthday cake: the head of a young Woody Allen on a tall and gangly frame. The phrase Ichabod Cranium flashed through my mind—I could only hope that thought had gone unarticulated.

Someone had brought me home, gotten me undressed and into bed. My bedroom faces west; the sunlight streaming through a gap between my drapes showed it was late afternoon. If the punishment fit the crime, I had really enjoyed my party. I was pondering the wisdom of getting up when a roadrunner-like “me-meep” made my skull resonate. Email.

I stumbled past my PC on my way to the bathroom. The subject line of the newest message brought a shock of memory. It was a reply. “Please, no,” I croaked.

Please is not always the magic word. It appeared that the Journal of Emergent Sociology was facing a last-minute delay in the delivery of an invited paper, and so had a hole to fill in the upcoming quarterly issue. They couldn’t promise publication, of course, but would look favorably upon a timely submission along the lines of my overnight emailed proposal.

I scrolled down the message to see just what I’d suggested in my drunken stupor. Reading, my stomach lurched.

* * * *

My father hoards speech as if words were being rationed for some war effort, a miserliness that manifests itself both in vocabulary and brevity. As to the former, I’ll offer only an example. I knew the word vehicle before car, plane, or boat. How odd is that? As for the latter, there’s a reason my sister refers to Dad as Professor Cryptic.

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Categories: Edward Lerner