HENRY KANNENBERG'S LITTLE SLICE OF AMERICA
My name is Henry Kannenberg, and I am twenty-six
years old. I received your letter last week, and I apologize for taking
so long to respond. I have spent the last seven days composing this reply.
Please don't get your hopes up from that last sentence. I am not a very
good writer, and it takes me six or seven days to write the kind of letter
that most people can knock off in a few hours.
You wrote your letter to Michael Berger,
who, like yourself, is nine years old. He lives next door to me and, due
to the incompetence of our mailman, I received your letter instead of
Michael Berger. I suppose I could have given your letter to Michael Berger,
and if you want me to do that, I surely will. But I thought that it would
be more worthwhile for you to have me, and not Michael Berger, as your
American pen-pal. In your letter, you said that you were "very eager
to find out what life in America is really like." Already I have
told you about the ineptitude of our postal service. I don't think Michael
Berger could have shared that information with you. Michael Berger, from
what I've seen, is only interested in riding his bike and practicing handstands
on his front lawn. But, as I've said, if you want him as your pen-pal,
let me know, and I will pass on your letter to him. I will say this: when
I was your age, I would have jumped at the chance to correspond with a
young adult like myself. In fact, I'll be so bold as to say that every
American your age would welcome the chance to exchange letters with a
twenty-six year old. Now, whether or not that holds true for a Greek like
yourself is another matter. I won't be so bold as to make sweeping statements
about a country that I've never visited. But you asked me about America,
and I do know America, I think. I hope you agree.
Here's something else about America: most young
adults live on their own, in apartments, in big cities, with jobs that
pay them respectable wages. I am the exception. I live with my parents,
in the small town and aluminum-sided home and even the same bedroom in
which I grew up. I am too lazy to change the posters that adorn my walls,
so that at night, when I go to sleep, I am surrounded by rock stars and
athletes who are either middle aged or dead. Why, Henry, is your life
like this? I'm sure you're burning to ask me that question, Alexander,
and I'm going to answer it for you. But first I need to make an assumption.
Your name is not really Alexander, is it?
You probably have a Greek version of that name, don't you? The assumption
that I am going to make is that, since you wrote your letter as Alexander,
you want to use an American name in our correspondence. Great! Good for
you for making the effort! The thing is, in America, if we were friends,
I'd call you Alex. So that's what I'm going to do from now on, since this
letter is about to jump into some very personal material (far more personal
than what you had in your letter, which was great for a nine year old
whose first language is Greek, but still, you never got past hobbies and
pets and siblings. Alex, I don't want you to be discouraged by that last
line. Instead, I want you to be inspired. That's what I hope you take
out of this entire correspondence inspiration. Otherwise, I would
have just given this letter to Michael Berger and let him write you back
about his hobbies and pets and siblings, and by doing so, I would have
let you sink into one of those boring pen-pal relationships, the kind
that I had when I was your age, with a boy from Uganda. I can't even remember
his name, Alex, that's how poor our relationship was).
And now, Alex, I will answer your question.
College was very difficult for me. I wanted to
become a doctor, and so I needed to take some of the most challenging
classes that my university offered, and, more importantly, I needed to
earn high grades in those classes. I worked very hard for the first three
and a half years. I was at the top of my class and gained acceptance at
some of the top medical schools in the country. And finally, when spring
of my senior year rolled around, I decided to reward myself with a deserved
rest. I stopped going to lectures and just did well enough to pass my
exams. I knew that I was going to have to work like mad for four more
years of medical school, so why not reward myself with a few months of
relaxation? I took a summer job after graduation working for an ecology
laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Alex, let me translate that last
sentence for you: I would be spending my summer before medical school
chasing around butterflies in one of the most beautiful areas in all of
But that summer I discovered the inertia
of relaxation. You're just nine years old, and your English, while very
strong, is not superb. So I am quite aware that when you read the words
"the inertia of relaxation," you don't know what I am talking
about. That's fine; I don't think most Americans would know what I'm talking
about, either. What I'm trying to say is that once you start to unwind,
the laws of inertia take over, and you start falling into a mode of never
being able to recover your usual, vigilant state. That's how it worked
for me, and my guess is that it would work that way for most people if
they allowed themselves the months of relaxation that I allowed myself
that spring and summer. When it was time for me to leave Woods Hole and
return to New York for medical school, I didn't know if I'd be able ever
to recover from the inertia of relaxation. In Woods Hole, I would sleep
for almost half the day. How was I going to be able to wake up for classes?
How could I stay up until one or two or three in the morning, studying
for anatomy or physiology exams? Questions like that were never answered,
because on the drive back to New York, I fell asleep and the next thing
I remember is waking up in a Connecticut hospital. My car hit a truck
I was in the hospital for almost three months
after the accident. Obviously I missed the beginning of the medical school
year. But that was the least of my concerns. Thanks to the truck, I lost
power of everything below my bellybutton. Or maybe it's all thanks to
myself, for falling asleep at the wheel when I should have been paying
attention. But, in truth, and I'm sure you've already guessed this, Alex,
the real culprit here is the law of inertia, because I was still in resting
mode when I was driving. If I had been my old, eager self, I would have
never fallen asleep, and I would now be able to urinate on my own command.
I have T4 paralysis; that's the medical
way of saying that every nerve below my fourth thoracic vertebrae is non-functional.
Alex, are you just blown away by the irony of this situation? Here I am,
using medical jargon to show off to you, a nine year old who's not even
from this country, whereas I should probably be using phrases like "T4
paralysis" everyday. If I hadn't started to slip off during the end
of college, I would now be on the verge of finishing medical school, becoming
Dr. Henry Kannenberg. Don't feel sorry for me, though, Alex. Because deep
down, this is probably the easiest thing for me, isn't it? I gave in to
the laws of inertia. I made my life into one permanent state of rest.
I sit in a chair all day long. And I feel nothing below my bellybutton
-- not a needle prick, not the slap of a hand, not even a burning flame.
How's that for a peaceful calm? I don't even have to work to go to the
bathroom. Everything just happens by its own volition.
I know what you're thinking, Alex, and yes, technically
I could have still gone to medical school and become a doctor. After all,
doctors really don't use their legs for anything other than standing.
You'd be right, Alex, and you'd be completely in accord with my parents,
who are still pressing me on the issue, wondering when I will regain the
passion that I once had for life. I feel sorry for them. They must be
very confused. They sent me off to college as a bright, super-charged,
ambitious boy, and I returned as a man in a wheelchair who is content
to spend his days watching television and reading books.
And maybe, with your bright little Greek
brain, you're thinking that I could at least have gotten a job, like working
at a desk for a bank or a brokerage house, some kind of employment that
four years of college, and thousands of my parents' dollars, have earned.
And again, you'd be right, Alex, and this time you'd be in agreement with
the United States government, which has refused to grant me disability
payments until I reach the age of retirement. You're right, my parents
are right, and so is the government, but the thing is, so am I. I know
that I can't function in society. It's been too long. Maybe if I had gone
to medical school I could have defied the laws of inertia, but now it's
been almost four years, and I'm in a state of rest that will never be
You said that you were "very eager to find
out what life in America is really like," and I am aware that all
I am able to tell you is Henry Kannenberg's version of America. On the
bright side, I am looking out my window at this exact moment, and Michael
Berger, your true pen-pal, is once again practicing handstands on his
front lawn. I hope you agree with me that it is lucky for you that I,
and not Michael Berger, received your letter. I can picture Michael Berger's
version of America being something like, "America is kind of cool
when you look at it upside down." And that might be an extremely
clever thing to say, except that he's just nine years old and he wouldn't
even know that he's being clever.
During my time in the hospital after the
car accident, I had as a roommate a man with a recent heart transplant.
He told everyone that he had two ages: sixty-four and thirty-five. Sixty-four
was his real age, and thirty-five was his heart's age. He wrote letters
to all of his friends and relatives, and he asked me to proofread them
for spelling mistakes. They were good letters, but I wouldn't say that
they were unforgettable letters. And yet I can recall every letter that
he wrote. Do you know why that is, Alex? Because he put titles on his
letters. For example, "The Applesauce Dilemma" letter was about
how he thought that one of his liquid medications tasted like applesauce
and so he was afraid that he'd never be able to eat applesauce again without
thinking of the hospital. And "Blue-Haired Doctors" was about
how a medical student had talked with him and during the interview, all
he could look at was the earring in the medical student's eyebrow. He
said that he had seen another medical student with a tattoo on his forearm,
and then he asked the person to whom he was writing, "What's next?
I never asked him why he put titles on his
letters. I probably should have. But in any case, Alex, my guess is that
he put titles on his letters so that they'd be easier to remember. It
worked for me, and I was just proofreading. So, I've decided to give this
letter a title, in hopes that you'll always remember it, and me. I've
thought for some time about this title, and I've chosen "Henry Kannenberg's
Little Slice of America." It has a grand sound to it, I think. The
sad thing is that, without this title, you would probably forget me. Please
do not deny the obvious. My life is not very interesting. I know that.
So there you have it, America according to Henry
Kannenberg (that was my first choice for the title of the letter, but
I think that the one I've chosen is more memorable. I also briefly considered
using "The Inertia of Relaxation," but then I realized how subjective
that title is, and also I felt it would have been a bit grandiose to title
my letter with a theory of mine). What is to become of me, Alex? I really
can't say for sure. There is the chance that I will someday be able to
break free from this state of repose, that I will be able to get myself
back in shape, get a job and move out into the city. Maybe even walk again.
Yes, there's one last thing about my slice of America that I have not
told you. My doctor thinks that I am not really paralyzed. He claims that
there is no physical evidence of nerve damage. He does not think that
I am consciously faking the paralysis, but he thinks that I may be suffering
from a "conversion disorder" and that my body has become paralyzed
in order to relieve an underlying emotional conflict. Alex, I hope I am
not speaking over your head here. Basically, my doctor thinks that I am
afraid of becoming an adult, and thus I am paralyzed by that fear and
not by actual damage to my body. He thinks that the car accident itself
may have been another manifestation of the fear. Do you think that I would
deliberately fall asleep and drive into a truck? I don't. He does, though.
And my parents, I suspect, believe what he says.
I told you that I was in the hospital for
about three months after the accident, and I was not lying when I said
that, but four of those weeks were in a psychiatric hospital. Don't be
angry with me for misleading you, Alex. It's not something that I'm very
proud of. Imagine what it would be like to be me, to be in a hospital
surrounded by crazy men and women, and I can't even get out of bed. I
ring the nurse's button, and when she comes in, she asks me, "What
do you want?" And I say, "I want to get out of bed, get dressed
and maybe have some coffee." And she's been briefed by my doctor,
she thinks I really can walk, so she says, "Then do it." And
what can I do, Alex? I look at her with the saddest eyes I can make, until
she says, "Alright, I'll help you." This is all very embarrassing.
I haven't opened myself up like this to
anyone, not even to my doctor. We meet once a week and all I do is fend
off his questions. But I feel as if I can tell you anything, Alex, and
I thank you for that. I don't want you to think that "Henry Kannenberg's
Little Slice of America" was meant to elicit pity from you. As I
said at the start of this letter, I want you to be inspired by my words.
The message here is don't ever slack off, don't ever relax, because you
may be drawn into a hole from which you'll never emerge. When you learn
about the laws of thermodynamics and start to appreciate the concept of
inertia, don't forget my words. Stay sharp, Alex. I can tell that you
are a bright kid. You opened your letter to Michael Berger by saying "Greetings."
That is not how most Americans begin their letters --we usually say "dear"
-- but I think that your opening is far more interesting, and that's why
I used it myself. I am going to use your closing too, and I will be doing
so in all sincerity.
Your new friend,
HENRY KANNENBERG'S LITTLE SLICE OF AMERICA