A sociologist’s controversial first book and the debate over who gets to speak for whom.
A story of the very complicated demographics of small-town life.
"But I’m no country bumpkin, let me tell you. Cultural institutions in Spencer include a glass studio, a community theater, and a bona fide art school, which relocated in 2008 from the city of Detroit, which as you might have guessed, did not make the cut for Relocate-America.com’s Top 100 Places to Live for 2007. Hence, the art school moving to Spencer. If you’re wondering how a city gets on the list, it says on Relocate-America.com’s website that theirs is the “only list that is determined by statistics and feedback of the people who live, work & play in these communities.” So basically, they take in consideration both fact and opinion and process them in a secret formula to produce a totally non-biased ranking based not just on numbers but also on the enthusiasm of Real People Who Definitely Live There. This explains why we are only three slots down from San Francisco, California on the rankings, because we are definitely on par with a major metropolitan, ocean-bordering melting pot with a majority-minority population of close to a million people where it Doesn’t Snow Ever; anyone who’s ever been to Spencer, Iowa can attest to that."
"Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color—the lighter the better—in social clubs, neighborhoods, churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity?"
A sociologist learns techniques for evading the authorities.
Excerpted from On the Run.
A gardener unknowingly becomes a pawn between two distant neighors.
"Pat offered to shower with a bucket in her tub, a suggestion she’d read in the paper. This he accepted, and she started leaving the buckets for him on the porch. In the shower, she’d spread out her hands, thinking how the water that ran over her body was helping sustain Kirill’s vegetables."
A scientific and psychological examination of a gunshot.
"This is how you feel a bullet. You have certain sensory receptors that detect pain, these are called nociceptors. When a nocicpetor receives a painful stimulus, it sends a signal through its neuron to the spinal cord, which sends the signal to your brain, which sends it to a number of different areas for processing. The location and intensity of the stimulus is deciphered by the primary and secondary somatosensory cortex, for example."
Uncertainty principles applied to modern domestic life.
"But there were always more things to add to the list—don't speak of body issues in front of daughters or read magazines with tweaked and smoothed images that were—hadn't she read this—actually altering the brain chemistry for young girls. Plus the magazines were paper, wasteful, though reading on line wasn't great for macular degeneration and other ocular issues and who wanted one more thing—glasses—to have to remember to pack every day? Plus glasses might make her feel older which wasn't terrible—she's happy where she is and needs to lean in lean back push onward and show this—but glasses might make her feel sexless and that would make her less present in the moment."
A daycare pickup becomes a surreal look into nature and human development.
"In the middle of the landscape, a pile of toys rises from the earth to form a tower. Children approach it in a perpetual stream, grabbing toys, as many as they can carry. They run off with their arms full, toys spilling from their tiny ravenous bodies. The pile keeps growing and growing. The father remembers seeing the President on television once, back when television was still a toy. When I grew up during the Depression, the President told the Nation, my only toy was a wood plank full of rusty nails, which I had to share with sixty-six brothers. Bullshit. What politician ever knew how to share? The father watches as a group of children forms a circle around the base of the pile, holding hands. They are wearing nothing but loincloths."
A boozy party reveals complicated social dynamics to a young teenager.
"Craig looked back at the keys dangling in the ignition. He looked out at the winking lights casting patterns on the river. This was his moment – the moment assigned to him by older social peers – and he clumsily scaled the seat like a fence."
A short, philosophical study of why we carry what we do.
"The fact is that everything I have in my pockets is carefully chosen so I’ll always be prepared. Everything is there so I can be at an advantage at the moment of truth. Actually, that’s not accurate. Everything’s there so I won’t be at a disadvantage at the moment of truth. Because what kind of advantage can a wooden toothpick or a postage stamp really give you?"
On living alone, which more people are doing today than ever before.
A comic, loose fable: Big Foot teaches a creative writing course.
"He goes on about how he, the Big Foot, was famous for a minute, and that he’s not quite sure where it all went wrong. Then, of course, he brings the government into it. Fictitious Beast Placement program this, FBP program that, and a few of us fall asleep at our desks because we’ve heard the same speech for like three weeks in a row."