Dear Interrogators,

When I was about twelve years old, my mom gave me a copy of Dale Carnegie's famous, 1936 genre-defining self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. I suspect that my mom was not particularly popular as a teenager, and I think she wanted me to do better.

I did. I don't know if How to Win Friends and Influence People had anything to do with it, but I still remember some of the advice, so something from the book must have stuck with me. One of the things that stood out in my mind was Dale Carnegie's firm conviction that people are, by and large, fundamentally egocentric, and consequently enjoy talking about themselves, their own passions, and their own interests above all else. The trick to captivating conversation then is to prompt your partner for stories about themselves and the stuff they care about. Blathering on about yourself makes you a conversational bore, but a couple of observant questions that express genuine interest in your partner can launch someone into a long, passionate discussion. Let them do the blathering; they'll like you for it. Small talk won. Cocktail party conquered. You're the star of the salon.

At least, that's how it's supposed to go. I'm here to tell you it can go wrong. 

Not everyone is Charlie Rose. Take my dear mother, for example. Sometimes her conversation-starter questions devolve into a dreary, dead-end interrogation instead.

Imagine the Gestapo has you chained to a desk with that bare light bulb hanging in your face, but then they start asking for meaningless details from your most recent vacation. And you're like, "I don't know, I guess that's just how the Romans decided to build it," and your interrogator slams the table and says, "But how long did you have to wait to get into the Colosseum?" and by the third hour you're certain that you're one more pointless question away from cracking, just one more inane inquiry away from breaking, from collapsing into a pile of sobs and screaming out, "WHO THE FUCK GIVES A SHIT WHERE I BOUGHT THE FLIP FLOPS," but you can't, because it's not the Gestapo, it's your overly curious, well-meaning, minutia-mining mom trying to start a conversation. And it's the conversation from hell.

Last week I sent my mom a photo of her grandson.

We don't live in the same state as my parents, so I like to send her a lot of quick snaps of my one-year-old throughout the week to make her feel like she's watching him grow up. In this particular photo my little Darius was stooped over our cat, Rutherford, carefully placing cheerios onto Rutherford's back. It was an adorable picture. Darius already has two cheerios down and is studiously nestling a third into Rutherford's fur, the cheerio pinched between his tiny thumb and tiny forefinger, and Rutherford's looking back up at Darius like, "What the fuck is going on here?"

There are a lot of ways to respond to a photo like that. You could write back, "Oh isn't that nice," or you could comment, "How cute," together with a laughing emoticon, or you could pull out something ironically millennial like, "Tots adorbs," or if you were pressed for time you could just look at the picture, smile, and put your phone back in your pocket.

My mom wrote back, "Why is Darius putting cheerios on Rutherford's back?" As if there's a backstory. As if the explanation for anything a one-year-old does is ever anything other than the fact that it's a one-year-old and they just do one-year-old shit all day.

"He just is," I wrote back.

"But there must be some reason why he's doing it," my mom pressed on.

"I don't know what that reason could possibly be," I answered. "I just thought you'd enjoy the picture."

"He probably saw someone else doing something similar. Do you ever put things on the cat?" My mom continued needling unrelentingly like an indefatigable force of tedious nature.

It was at this moment that I realized there's only one way to circumvent an inane interrogator. I'm ashamed to admit that it took me over thirty years to figure it out. But all at once, from out of the blue, I had a moment of clarity and suddenly my path became perfectly obvious. I saw a way out. It would not be short, but it would be fun.

"You know," I wrote back, "I actually have been putting a lot of things on the cat recently. Little trinkets like buttons, potato chips, Lego blocks; small stuff mostly, but also the occasional WWII model tank or Yankee Candle."

"I knew Darius had picked it up somewhere!" My mom replied victoriously. "Why have you been putting all that stuff on Rutherford?"

"I guess you could say it's something of a vendetta," I continued. "Rutherford has been sneaking into our bedroom at night and placing things on me while I'm asleep. At first he started small- just a couple bits of Purina or a plush mouse toy; I wasn't even sure it was him at the beginning. My wife would ask me why I had a few pieces of cat food on my back in the morning, and I didn't have an answer. We just kind of waved it off as one of life's little unsolved mysteries. But Rutherford gradually grew more ambitious over time, and we figured out it was him after he stuffed two squeaky toys down the back of my shirt and nestled a dead mouse in my hair one night."

"Oh he didn't!" My mom responded. "That's repulsive."


"So your solution to all this was to start putting things on Rutherford while he was asleep? Why didn't you just close the bedroom door at night?"

"Tried that. Didn't work. Rutherford can open doors. He just jumps up, grabs the doorknob with both paws, and swings his body back and forth, gaining momentum and twisting the knob further and further until the door opens."

"Couldn't you lock the door?"

"Well, that worked at first. But then he started going down to the basement, working his way back up the HVAC ductwork and then dropping down on us from the ceiling. It actually exasperated the problem. At least when he was coming in through the door he could only carry a few items in his mouth because he needed his paws to swing on the doorknob. After he figured out the ductwork trick he started making multiple trips, loading up the duct the whole length of the ceiling and then pushing it all down on us in one go. I'll never forget the worst night- thirteen dead pigeons, four half-dead pigeons, two mostly-live pigeons, a hairbrush, a sack of marbles, at least a big black garbage bag worth of dead leaves, and an old car battery. The car battery really hurt. And of course I couldn't get to work in the morning either."

"No! That can't be. How could Rutherford drag a car battery up two stories? That's ridiculous."

"He's really strong now. He's been working out. Like, not at the gym, obviously, but he spends hours every day just running up and down trees, sprinting up that hill out behind the house, carrying heavy stuff in his mouth. It's like a Rocky montage."

"Oh, how could you possibly know what he's doing? You're at work all day."

"I put my Fitbit on him. I can see all the stats on my phone, even when I'm at the office. That cat is getting in well over ten thousand steps per day on average. I'm not exactly sure how much Rutherford weighs, but I'd estimate he's burning through at least three thousand calories a day, easy. And he's really getting shredded. Big, rippling muscles. 2% body fat, probably. You can see it in his diet too- he eats constantly, mostly protein. He won't touch carbs."

"Cats mostly just eat protein anyway, don't they? They're meat-eaters. I know our cats never ate much in the way of carbs. Did Rutherford eat a lot of carbs before?"

"No, but he's religious about it now. Sanctimonious, even. The whole thing's kind of turned him into an asshole if I'm being honest. Like anytime we're eating a piece of bread or something, Rutherford will come over and just give us this holier-than-thou look like he thinks he's better than us. And then he'll jump on my lap and start kneading my gut just in case I missed the condescension the first time. I'm not even that fat. Just because he wants to dedicate his life to some extreme fitness regimen doesn't mean he now has a license to go around judging all the normal people who just want to live their lives and actually enjoy things every once in a while, God forbid."

"Right... but I still don't understand how putting things on Rutherford's back helps anything. Did he stop doing all this stuff after you started placing things on him? Did it help at all?"

"In some ways I guess it has helped, in other ways, not so much. I do get a lot of satisfaction out of sneaking up on him while he's sleeping and stacking a hand-full of dominoes, a juicy peach pit, and oh, let's say some expired Chuck E. Cheese's coupons onto Rutherford's back. The look in his eyes when he finally wakes up and realizes I got him... it's priceless. On the other hand, I think Rutherford has been stealing some of the more valuable items that I stack on him. I've found a couple things now on eBay."

"On eBay? Oh, come on now. How in the world could Rutherford..."

"I mean, obviously Rutherford isn't selling the stuff on eBay himself. That's not what I'm saying. He's not even old enough to open a PayPal account. But he brings the stuff over to the neighbors' house, and I think they have some sort of an exchange worked out. Like Rutherford brings them a Yankee Candle, and they give him a treat or something. I'm pretty sure the neighbor is encouraging it, like one of those shady pawn shops that fences stolen merchandise."

"Who is this neighbor? Have I met them?"

"I don't think so. His name's Jesse. He's a younger, single guy who moved in recently after his aunt died."

"Have you confronted him about this?"

"Oh, I don't know. He sort of has a bad reputation. Supposedly he was a drug dealer back in high school and some of the other people in the neighborhood don't think he ever broke out of that. I mean, he seems friendly enough but I don't want to stir up drama with a potentially unstable neighbor over a few Yankee Candles, especially with the family and everything. It could spiral out of control."

"Well if you think he's dealing drugs in your neighborhood, then you should really think about going to the police. Just imagine if he's still at it later when Darius gets older."

"To be honest, I think he might be cooking drugs up over there. He spends a lot of time in a ratty old RV in the driveway. It's all very suspicious."

"Sebastian, you need to call the police. Why haven't you called the police already?"

"Mom, this is all pure speculation. You can't just send the police onto people's private property without a warrant just because a few rumors are going around. And who knows what's really going on. I see one of the local high school teachers over there a lot; maybe Jesse's working on his GED or something."

"Or maybe they're making drugs together!"

"Mom! Don't be ridiculous. Mr. White is a pillar of the community. His brother-in-law's a cop for God's sake. Besides, I kind of like the mystery. Somehow I have a feeling this whole saga is just getting started, and it's going to be a lot of fun to watch."

"I don't know what that's supposed to mean. It's not going to be fun for anyone if this neighbor of yours starts hurting people."

"You know, I really don't think he's a bad guy at heart. Breaking the rules sometimes, Ok; a bit of an underachiever, sure; maybe not the most upstanding citizen you'll ever meet; maybe even someone who could find himself on the wrong side of the law from time to time... but a decent and loyal human being in the end, really just looking for love, redemption, and a brief moment of respite from his own personal demons; just as so many of us are."

"I hope you're not spending too much time with this guy. You sound like you know him pretty well."

"Oh, I've just seen people a lot like him before. They come and go with the seasons, I guess. He's a very relatable character."

"Ok, well your dad is getting antsy to leave, & he wants me to drive so I'll talk to you later."

"Where are you guys going, & why does Dad want you to drive?" I asked.

"Well you sure are nosy today," my mom answered.

The nerve.

I learned two important things last week. First, I learned that my mother is a suspicious neighbor who would have ruined Breaking Bad, had she been a character in it.

Secondly, I figured out what to do with someone who's consistently off target with their questions- the same thing you can do with someone who's off target with anything else- let them shoot first & then draw the bull's-eye around the bullet hole afterwards.

Sebastian Braff


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