The Topic At Hand: How Do You Like Your Eggs?

When I asked my mother where the scrambled eggs I was eating came from, she told me that they were originally supposed to be baby chickens. I looked at the little yellow and white shapes, and thought I could make out the little creatures, each one an inch or so across. I pressed them between two pieces of toast, so I didn’t have to watch them protest while I ate. My mother served me eggy sandwiches for a long time.

My brothers and I had many toys, scattered over a large house. Who owned these toys, and where they were each meant to reside, was well-established among the three of us, but not to Martha, the cleaning woman who came twice per week. Within those rooms was an intricate network of extraterrestrial cities, secret powers dependent on the intersection of brands (the foot-long blue Tonka pickup truck had a sacred relationship with the plastic Pillsbury Doughboy), and indicators of the latest cliffhangers (a Lego city was left sitting on the edge of the dining room table, not out of carelessness, but as a metaphor for a political crisis faced by its citizens).

As boys went, we did not make a lot of messes that had to be cleaned up with mops and sprays. Martha’s job with regard to our toys was not to clean, but to organize. (But, as noted, the toys were already organized.)

Since Martha was not able to tell which toys belonged to whom (especially since the nature of the toy world dictated that a particular spaceship or stuffed animal might easily end up either in the six , eight, or twelve year-old’s room at any given time), she would arbitrarily rearrange our toys in a way that made more sense to the adult eye. We’d come home from school to find sworn enemies cuddling with one another, elaborate tableaus dismantled in ways that clearly contradicted the laws of Muppet time travel and Hot Wheels super-gravity.

We gave this phenomenon a name: The Martha Monster. Martha was a force of nature, an uncertainty principle, a reminder against all toys not to get haughty. Like the characters in Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake (which would not be written for many years), our avatars would sometimes find themselves forced to relive the dramas that had already defined them.

Because some of the toys and scenarios never actually intersected, or did so in ways that varied depending on context, we divided the imaginary multiverse into clearly defined arbitrary universes, called “shows.” Some of these shows had ritualistic opening sequences that had to be invoked before the show could begin. For example, in the “Underwater” show, in which the house filled to the ceiling with water, a knob had to be pressed on my brother Dan’s dresser, causing each of us to transform into powerful, undrownable water-creatures.

After Martha disrupted one of these realities, it was, in the modern parlance, “rebooted.” Vanquished villains were restored to life, and given the opportunity for redemption.  My brothers’ roles in the shaping of the various worlds were updated to match their increasing maturity. (My own powers were unlimited, and stayed that way.)

One aspect of the toy multiverse that concerned me greatly was the origin of life. How to account for it? After Christmas and holidays, there would suddenly be new creatures dwelling among the old. In fact, these presents were bound to be the center of attention for a while, so their integration into the existing milieu had to be fast and intuitive. This problem troubled me greatly. Had these new creatures been “born”? Did they have parents? To what extent must the existing multiverse absorb the corporate-generated mythological baggage that motivated the child in question to ask for it?

I experimented with different creation scenarios. Some of my brothers’ new toys had to be brought before Wiki, my own favorite toy. (Wiki, who was a sort of upright, wheel-driven bird made of Legos, was named after a robot on Jason Of Star Command.) I also experimented with toy-on-toy copulation, although this felt like a hollow ritual not sufficiently connected to the thing being made so as to be worthwhile.

The original Wiki (W1K1). Mine was cooler.

The original Wiki (W1K1). Mine was cooler.

Where did new toys come from? I could answer the question literally, but not mythically. What was the creation story? I felt myself slipping into adulthood, the problem of origins unsolved, my multiverse still calling out to be completed, even as it faded from view.

When I was in my early teens, my friend Gene and I would spend the night at each other’s houses, and we would go on “missions.” These missions mostly consisted of sneaking downstairs and cooking ourselves omelets without waking up our parents. We would prepare for these missions by donning dark clothes, as if we might end up in a situation where we’d be in the same room with our parents, but they somehow wouldn’t see us.

I don’t remember making any food besides omelets, over many missions. The omelet was breakfast, and we were eating it in the middle of the night. A rebellious inversion. What’s more, Gene and I, two kids who weren’t expected to do much cooking, then or later, were inverting the whole pyramid of responsibility. The adults were asleep, but we were awake. They were supposed to cook for us, but we were cooking for ourselves. Omelets were for breakfast, but we were having them late at night. As acts of rebellion and subterfuge went, ours were pretty benign. But they worked for us.


We were inverting the whole pyramid of responsibility.

In his Celebration Of Life lecture series, comparative anthropologist Joseph Campbell talks about how human beings continue to gestate long after birth. Unlike most other animals, being born and then spending a few months at home, watching our parents do what they do, is not enough to prepare us for life. We either stay under our parents’ care until we’re 18, or we’re pretty much fucked.

However, there is a parallel in nature to the extended gestation after birth that human children experience. Little incubators, fragile and begging to be cracked open, from the outside if not the inside. This is the period, after birth, during which the young animal is not expected to do anything more than develop.

My parents’ house is big and white and was built for my mother, by her father, so that she could raise a family there (my father was allowed to come too).  As if it were an egg that hatched me, it contains artifacts related to my origins, such as the many Japanese artworks acquired during my parents’ stay in Japan, during which I was born.

I actually went to Japan for a month when I was 17, and stayed with friends of my parents. They don’t eat eggs for breakfast. There was miso soup, and hot rice, and fish. Growing up a picky eater in Kansas in the 70s and rarely having had truly fresh saltwater fish, I was convinced that I hated all seafood, and generally refused to try it, even in Japan, where I was probably encountering actual fresh seafood for the first time in my life. My hosts took me to a huge sushi bar, with a long conveyor belt that ran from a hole in the kitchen all the way around the room. Salmon, eel, and roe passed me by. From the hole in the kitchen emerged a bundle of rice with a cooked egg on top, standing out in high contrast against the blood reds and oranges. I held my breath as it approached, hoping that everyone in line before me would turn it down.

During my first summer of graduate school in California, I met Ellen on the plane as I flew home to Kansas City. Near the end of the flight, she emerged from another part of the plane, slipped into the empty seat next to mine, told me she was scared of landings, and took my hand in hers. This story is true, but when I told it to my friends, they didn’t believe it, which made it better. An origin story that no one believes is a myth, and that gives it a new level of truth.

During the three weeks that we dated, Ellen told me another origin story. When she was conceived, her mother was still in high school. Ellen’s mother had told her own parents about the pregnancy, and they had arranged an abortion. But one night, sitting alone in her room, Ellen’s mother decided not to go through with it. To commemorate the choice (and, perhaps, to trap herself into it), she drew her future daughter an illustrated story about the pregnancy and her triumphant decision to carry it to term. This little yarn-bound book was passed on to Ellen as planned, and she showed it to me, and I read it.

I tried to tell Ellen a story of my own. We sat in my parents’ luxurious two-story living room with nine lights in the ceiling, and lush green carpeting.  I talked about the movie I was writing for school. It felt good to be telling a story in that space again, the same huge room that had played the role of oceans and outer space and, once, a black hole, when I was a kid. And here, again, I had a doting audience. I started to give her the pitch for my screenplay, a medieval coming-of-age fantasy. She tried to listen, but as soon as I said “dragons,” her large green eyes glazed over. I changed tactics, and started telling her about the politics of the school, my insane thesis adviser, my plight as a sensitive artist in a commercial world.

She chortled and fell back into my mother’s voluptuous white couch.

“Boys like you don’t have plights,” she said. “Only dramas.”

A week later, we broke up. Three weeks after that, she was calling me every day, and I wasn’t answering.

I retreated into a book that had been sitting on my bedroom shelf since I was in high school, unread: The Wild Palms, by William Faulkner. In the story, a man and a woman go out into the forest and live a poor but idyllic life. Eventually, the man is so enraptured with the breadth of his own free time and his lack of connection to society or responsibility that he decides to fashion a calendar based purely on the woman’s menstrual cycle. The second month lasts much longer than it should. He feels reality tugging at the edges of his created fantasy. As I read the story, I felt myself having the same experience.

The next time the phone rang, I picked it up.

“Did something happen?” I asked Ellen.

“Wouldn’t that be crazy?” she asked.

I felt a rush of gratitude for her use of the subjunctive.  Wouldn’t it? Hypothetical, imaginary, unreal.

A Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother administers the Gom Jabbar test to he who might become the Kwisatz Haderach, in David Lynch's adaptation of <em>Dune</em>.

A Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother administers the Gom Jabbar test to he who might become the Kwisatz Haderach, in David Lynch's adaptation of Dune.

“Buy me lunch,” she said.

We met at a diner. I got there late, and she had already ordered.  I tried looking at the menu while she watched me, but I gave up. I put the menu down.

She looked at me blankly. Her green eyes were huge. They grew and took over her face, which I realized was just a sort of casing for these gigantic white ovals. And each oval had a round portal in it, green like my mother’s lush carpet, and inside that a hole that led to another universe. Behind that portal, I could see her mother, and all the women of her line, all the way back to the beginning, back to the primal magical creature who had set it up, had set up this very event, here in this diner.

I thought of the Bene Gesserit, that society of women in Dune who carefully seduce men, one generation after the other, leading to the creation, someday, of their ultimate goal: a man with female intuition, the Kwitzach Haderach. It suddenly occurred to me that the Kwitzach Haderach was a cruel practical joke, executed by Frank Herbert, a middle-aged family man, against a legion of awkward boy readers who would have been willing to swallow even the most ridiculous conceit if it allowed them to believe that someday they might understand girls.

Ellen’s food came. Scrambled eggs. I sat there numbly, watching her turn them over with her fork.

“Want some?” she asked.

It occurred to me that today was Wednesday. Back at my parents’ house, Martha was coming. She would be rearranging things. When I returned, reality might have shifted. Things might be in a different order. Relationships between disparate creatures might have taken on a different nature. Cleaner. More organized.


punk chicken photo by Shauna Schoenborn

w1k1 photo taken from TV Acres

Dune image taken from Fantasy Mundo

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17 responses to “Which Came First?”

  1. EDR says:

    1 (precious works of art) VALUABLE, costly, expensive; invaluable, priceless, beyond price.
    2 (her most precious possession) VALUED, cherished, treasured, prized, favorite, dear, dearest, beloved, darling, adored, loved, special.
    3 (his precious manners) AFFECTED, overrefined, pretentious; informal la-di-da.

  2. That’s clever, Liz… your second comment both clarifies, and obfuscates, the meaning of your first.

  3. A says:

    My mom was the “Martha Monster”. My cousin and I used to build Barbie houses out of milk crates from my dad’s job, fairly elaborate ones made of 8 or 10 crates. My mom dismantled them every chance she got. Too much “clutter”.

  4. Tara says:

    I love the image of the city on the edge of the table, and the clashing world views played out in the arrangements and rearrangements of your toys.

  5. Amanda says:

    I really like the beginning of this piece. The descriptions of you and your brothers as children are likable, sharply drawn, well-paced. It’s hard, though, for me to appreciate the rest as much as I’d like to do. I can’t quite overlook that the “cast” of this writing includes

    1. a monstrous woman who dismantles or scrambles the worlds created by young men
    2. a moony(egg?)-eyed, clingy young woman who shares her world with you and then like a female character in a Tolstoy novel reveals a disappointing lack of character
    3. the moony-(egg)-eyed woman’s entire gyneological line: because Ellen could not just be Ellen but must be Womanhood, arrayed like an army of antaonistic Russian dolls against your angst-filled masculine spirit
    4. a reference fictional movie characters, also women interpreted/created by men, who manipulate men reproductively in hopes of eliminating them

    I am not “protesting” or “disapproving” your essay exactly; and I am not quite calling it misogynistic, although the piece has, like much writing of the past 2000 years, some of that in it. You can write about / feel about / know the world as you like, but for my part, I think the piece lacks something–a redemptive move, a coming to knowledge, a certain kind of irony, self-awareness, or humility on the part of the writer. The fact that the lack hovers around what seems like frustration with women strikes me the wrong way. Maybe I’m reading it too soon after last weeks events in Pennsylvania?

  6. Amanda, thanks for the well-considered comment.

    Perhaps, because this is a first person story told as nonfiction, it’s difficult to make a distinction between the narrator’s feeling of being trapped within a certain paradigm, and his own awareness of that paradigm, then or now.

    There was a passage in an earlier version about a woman whom the narrator knew in his undergrad years, who taught him a lot about feminist critical theory, while also teasing him with the idea that they might someday sleep together. The idea there was to let the reader know that the narrator is well aware of the construction you refer to above, even as he sometimes feels powerless against employing it. Ultimately, though, I decided not to use it, because I didn’t want to make this essay about something that it wasn’t.

  7. randall says:

    I am tempted to respond by writing a parallel narrative that, if you will, occupies the same (non)fictional universe as this one. A spin-off, perhaps, that takes a sharp detour, suddenly following an entirely peripheral character home and seeing what happens when the world has to reorganize itself around this alternative point of gravity. I always found that conceit exciting and troubling, and I admire artists who pull it off even in the midst of otherwise worthless exercises (the song “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” in Evita , which I saw while I was just starting to grasp the full horizon of narrative possibilities, has always served as the paradigmatic example for me, no matter how hard I try to shake it.

    Two points of full disclosure here:

    1) I just moved to Minneapolis, where I am staying at the house of a woman who I don’t know very well, and after long days of job and apartment hunting, I have found odd solace in her Laverne and Shirley box-set, so I am resensitized to the particular pathos of the spin-off.

    2) I am one of Michael’s brothers, and the fictional universes which he describes in this essay, into which I had limited authorial input (my contributions were, apparently, curated for maturity) nonetheless were distinctly influential to my own sense both of narrative and of play. I’m not sure, however, that I was particularly sensitive, at the time, to existential questions. A babe in the suburbs, I happily fetishized the commodities which appeared periodically to add texture to our imaginary worlds — just as I did the imaginary worlds themselves. Such is the privilege of the younger brother.

    I am chastened in my impulse, however, by a particular memory — this one when we were much older (but when, I think, my work was still being curated for maturity) — of another time that I was moved to share my perspective on this bit of our childhood in a public forum. It was at a party that was hosted by some of Michael’s friends (could Ellen have been there? Or am I off by a few years?) to which I had been invited. There was no end to the fantastic universes to which a younger sibling has access, without having had to dream up on his own. I told the story the way that I tend to tell it when I’m drinking with my own friends — that is, with a bit more attention on Michael’s authorial omnipotence, his incremental meting out of crucial subplots, and the ironic worldplay with which he rendered his minor characters both fully human (or superhuman, or arachnoid, etc. depending on the specific case) and ridiculous. I was a bit of a hit, I remember, in the way that little brothers who come along to parties and add unexpected seasoning to old stories tend to be. And I was surprised, and more than a bit hurt, when Michael told me after the party that he didn’t want me talking about those things to his friends, on pain of no longer being invited along.

    In fact, I think that’s been a bit of a theme as we’ve grown up and have struggled to know how to relate to one another as opinionated adults who often disagree about, among other things, how narrative operates. Michael was a fantastic older brother, who made a project of including me in things to an extent that I often forgot by the time I was a teenager and was basking in the (all too temporary) glory of being called, from all angles, ‘precocious’. He taught me algebra when I was in second grade, and came home after being taunted by his fem-lit crush, to see how I would respond to poststructuralism. He bought me beer and let me host boozy high school parties at his college apartment. He talked to me frankly about sex. I was well read, and I modeled a kind of jaunty, idiosyncratic rebelliousness that got me through my adolescence on how I perceived him. I was (and continue to be, in my way) loud and unashamed, at least partially because I wanted, as always, to make sure that my brother would pay attention to what I was doing. And a lot of the time, what I was doing pissed (pisses) him off.

    Which is just to reiterate, I think, one of the themes that’s bound to come up when you start talking about origins, and about authorship. The world we occupy is always Frankensteined from a bunch of other people’s dreams. And we’re always fucking it up for them.

  8. EDR says:

    Randall, based on your comments here, I think you might like to read A Monster’s Notes
    by Laurie Sheck.

  9. Randall, I don’t remember the incident you describe very well, but I know both of us well enough to reconstruct it. I’m sure that I didn’t want you telling stories about our childhood because I felt that you were doing so at my expense. The stakes for you, in terms of choosing material to amuse my friends, were pretty low; if it didn’t work out, then you could just go back to high school (junior high?) on Monday, and tell your own friends that you went to a college party. Whether or not you had been “a hit” was all bonus rounds. But I was taking a social risk by bringing my little brother to a college party. The fact that you were telling my peers stories of our childhood (of me, really) that I hadn’t told them was not exactly encouraging. You knew a lot about me. Who knows, with all the alcohol and freedom and doting 20 year-old girls, what you might have said in order to be a bit more of a hit. Right? It wasn’t that I thought you would deliberately betray me in some way; more that I didn’t think you had the perspective to judge what such a betrayal might consist of.

  10. randall says:

    Sure. My point is just that, I guess: at some point, our projects start talking back to us, and it’s always too early. This particular incident, anyway, happened more like when I was already in college and the doting girls were 25.

  11. Oh. Well then, I was in grad school, and those people probably weren’t actually my friends. Same difference, I suppose.

  12. Eric Eicher says:

    I think Amanda has a point above about the strength of the beginning versus the rest of the piece, though I don’t feel as keenly as she does the difficulties inherent in the later characterization, etc. My larger concern lies with the ending, where I feel like I’ve been led to believe that something of real consequence is to take place, but when I get there, I’m left to tease what that thing might be out of the artful ambiguity myself. There’s a fragment of what I believe was a 17th-century epigram by a lawyer named, if I’m not mistaken, John Selden, the start of which has rattled around in my head since I was an undergraduate, archaic punctuation and all: “We measure from ourselves; and as things are for our use and purpose, so we approve them.” I mention those words only to underline the irreducible subjectivity of what I’m about to say. But that said, for my use and purpose, I feel like there would have been more power in revealing somewhat more to the reader at the essay’s end, in a way that still at once moved to tie together and heighten the essay’s themes. Easier said than done, I know, but that is what I’d have seen as the ultimate goal, given the intriguing play of elements that had gone before. And I wouldn’t even care enough to form such an opinion, if all that had gone before in this essay hadn’t made me want to know where we’d wind up badly enough that I was disappointed when it ended, and I still wasn’t sure. (Of course, there is always the distinct possibility that every other reader understood it all instantly.)

  13. Blackbear says:

    I loved your essay. It made me smile. Sounds like you need to go find Ellen.
    And I can tell by your writings that you and Randall love to wrestle with your minds.

  14. Eric Eicher says:

    Blackbear’s comment about finding Ellen intrigues me, since it was exactly not knowing what finally happened with her that kind of frustrated me about the essay. What I see as one of this essay’s real strengths is the kind of rush towards the final conversation that it creates, as phone calls are ignored, etc. But in the end, we have to decide what the upshot of that interaction was, and the guiding metaphor of the whole essay, not to mention the essay’s opening anecdote, among other things, leaves that as enigmatic as the age old philosophical crux that provides its title. On the other hand, as that same title demonstrates, leaving the upshot of it all up in the air was the plan from the very start, so the problem, if that’s the word, is likely ultimately mine.

  15. Eric, thanks for your generous interpretation.

    I made the ending ambiguous because I didn’t want it to end up feeling like a story about pregnancy. I wanted to keep it in the realm of anxiety, speculation, and the play between reality and imagination.

    That said, I surely could have found a way to accomplish that, without leaving readers feeling disappointed, or, as Amanda suggests, without leaving readers wondering whether I, the author, actually understand women better than the “I” that is the narrator of this piece. These questions have caused me to do a lot of thinking about the nature of the nonfictional authorial voice, and how that relates to online specifically, where the user-reader often has the chance to follow up on the experience by interacting more or less directly with the author-narrator, potentially exploding the traditional dynamics associated with suspension of disbelief, etc.

  16. Amy Meckler says:

    Michael, it’s a wonderful piece. I love how you so articulately detail the complicated logic that constitutes children’s play. Of course it’s completely formed and has clear rules governing its physics, but would never be explained so well until looking back into childhood as an adult.
    The Martha Monster concept almost becomes a fear of women reorganizing your world, changing the laws of gravity without your knowledge, making mortal enemies snuggle while your back is turned.
    I can’t wait to read more of your stuff.

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The Author

Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn has a range of experience in online publishing that spans creative, business, and technical aspects of the field. His former employers include Microsoft, CondeNast, and Federated Media. He also ran the online marketing campaign for the release of the first Amazon Kindle. He has an MFA in Cinema-Television from the University of Southern California. Michael is the publisher of Revolving Floor, which he also produced.

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