Excerpt from A User’s Guide to People

Soup: Getting Started

. . . a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” —Don Corleone

Mmmmm: isn’t this soup delicious? Just as this plate of soup warms our tummies and introduces our meal, so family warms and nourishes the User and prepares him to dig his teeth into the carcass of the world. Family is the ideal pedagogical and culinary first course.

Question: Are you actually telling me that I should use my family?

Answer: My friend, of course you should. If you can’t use your family, who can you use? Using begins at home. Yes, family is a ready-made bouillabaisse of stooges. The plain fact is that people are enormously sentimental about family. Therefore, you must maintain a family scrapbook and become a repository of family trivia and memorabilia. You must be able, with a wistful sigh, to tell anecdotes about your Aunt Estelle and be absolutely certain of the date on which she died. You must never take a bite of tongue sandwich without reminding everyone else that this was Uncle Mortie’s favorite: for such is the chaff which an accomplished User can spin into pure gold. If no one else has beaten you to the punch, you must elect yourself to the office of family historian. You must not only be the family tree’s most ardent guardian: you must also water the tree and cultivate its fruit.

What kind of fruit? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that only idiots believe that money doesn’t grow on trees. Indeed, every User knows that there’s no family tree from which it can’t be plucked. But there are other fruits as well. For example? Well, who else but family will let you sleep in their house, eat their food, use their toilet, telephone and their car? Who but family will serve as your private taxi when you’re visiting some distant city? Who else but family—warm, dependable family—can be counted on for a job or a reference or a bargain-basement deal on a dishwasher, theater tickets, jewelry or some other commodity? Oh yes, indeed: family affords opportunities that can be found almost nowhere else. Family is a User’s goldmine.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” —Robert Frost

For this reason, a User always maintains at least minimal contact with even the most distant relatives. How? I would not suggest phone calls, since this unnecessarily exposes a practitioner to the feculence and tedium of kin. A far better alternative would be to enroll them in your dollar-a-friend program—to pursue the regular habit of sending out birthday cards and holiday cards and very small gifts, which can be counted on to do the trick, since it’s only the thought that counts.

Question: Is a fourth cousin family?

Answer: What an excellent and philosophical question! Family feeling is so valuable a fluid that it is worthwhile to consider in what situations it runs out or becomes hopelessly diluted. You might also ask whether your sister’s husband’s aunt is a relative (and therefore must accept you as a house guest) or whether a step-uncle’s cousin in the jewelry business can be induced to give a family discount. There is no easy answer to any of these difficult questions. The rule of thumb, however, is that the usefulness of family is directly proportional to the degree of consanguinity. A mother or a sister can be used like a packhorse, but a distant cousin requires delicacy in order to be channeled toward some useful purpose….

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOUIS NETTER