Versailles used to really stink.

Versailles used to really stink.

Of course it’s all a matter of perspective and taste. What I think is hilarious, you find appalling. What you think is gross, I think is fascinating. And isn’t it great that the world is full of different opinions, otherwise it’d be a really boring place to live?

Except I’m usually the outlier.

Here’s an example. A bunch of years ago, I took a writing class at The New School. Every week we’d bring in something we’d written, read it aloud and receive constructive criticism from our peers and the teacher. At the time I was working on a collection of moderately subversive nursery rhymes and I was really pleased with this one (it’s better if you read it aloud):

 

Extra Help

Today I thee my thpeech teacher, her name ith Thally Beth

Which ith really not the betht name when you teach kidth who can’t thay “eth.”

But I don’t feel too bad, you thee

‘Cauthe my friend Laura’th got it worthe than me.

She thees Mithter Elzedall – and she can’t thay her “L-th” at all!

And then there’th David from our clath

He’th really good at doing math

But even when he trieth and trieth

He thimply cannot thay hith “Y-th.”

Not the short oneth or the long

He really hateth our morning thong:

“Young laddy, young lathie, prey how do you do?

Hey howdy! Yo ho! To you, you, you and you!”

Yeth it’th hard for Laura, David and me

But at leatht we’re not like Henry and Lee.

They’re five like uth, but they can’t read yet

Tho they thee Mithuth Rothkovidyet.

She thitth with them and writeth down wordth

Like pop and top and bearth and birdth.

Tho far they read jutht pup and cup

But Mithuth Rothkovidyet thayth she won’t give up!

To learn to talk and thing and read

Our parentth get uth the help we need.

And they thay if we work really hard

They’ll let uth play out in the yard!

 

Cricket.

No one would look at me. After a long, awkward pause the teacher said, “I just don’t understand. Why would you make fun of small children?”

I tried to explain that I wasn’t making fun of kids, I was making fun of parents who treat every minor imperfection like a life-threatening disease requiring the intervention of highly paid specialists.

The class didn’t buy it. I tried to do some damage control by reading a totally banal limerick about a family with too many strollers. I’m not sure it worked.

But this has been the story of my life. In junior high while the other kids were grooving on Bruce Springsteen and The Who, I was studying opera (“Yeah, I really like Led Zeppelin,” I would say, trying to pass as cool. “He’s a total fox”).

It’s still true today. I spent a year researching my latest novel. It’s set in the 17th century in Amsterdam, in Indonesia and on a Dutch East India Company ship. I must have learned at least 10 bajillion facts. But here are a few that stick with me:

  1. The term sailors used for cannibalism – the kind where they had to eat each other out of desperation, not the kind practiced as a ritual – is “custom of the sea.”
  2. Since Versailles had no bathrooms, people would simply relieve themselves in the corridors (I’d kill to know the etiquette around this. Did one wait for a private moment? Ask one’s companion to turn his or her back? Squat and keep chatting?). In 1715 Louis the XIV decreed that the excrement had to be removed once a week. Before that it was catch as catch can. So to speak.
  3. When you amputate someone’s arm, you’ll find that arteries are like spaghetti and veins are like capellini. Also, until the 17th century, surgeons cauterized the stump, but sometime in that century they started using a flap technique.

The questions I always ask are: What was it really like? What’s the stuff nobody wants to talk about? What’s underneath the surface?

Who’s with me?

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