"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."
Karen refugees from Burma--a mother and small child--adjust to a new life in the United States.
"Picture me following Derek, our startlingly obese caseworker, through the new apartment, trying to concentrate on his English with all of my mind. Picture me flipping a light switch for the first time and seeing the lamps blossom into electric life. Picture me flinching at the scream of the smoke alarm and the rush of water in the toilet and the wintry blast of the freezer, the coldest air I’d ever felt. My new apartment was full of traps, it seemed."
A young woman endures tedious, infuriating work in the hospitality industry.
"I told him that pest control would’ve noticed cockroaches when they were here looking for rats. They’re very different creatures, rats and cockroaches, he said. Yeah, but you’d know if you saw cockroaches or if you didn’t, I said. He looked at me as if I’d confessed that I used to be an insect myself and just stared with that fixed gaze for an interminable period and then said, what makes you think you’re qualified to make that distinction?"