The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race

<i>The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race</i> Gotham teacher Sara Baron recently saw the release of her humorous essay collection The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race. It’s every bit as funny as Sara’s previous essay collection People Are Unappealing: Even Me.Entertainment Weekly says of the new book, “Whether [Barron is] moving into a friend’s walk-in closet because she’s priced out of Manhattan real estate, discussing her love of bad music, or going on a hot date at Chipotle, we’re lucky to squirm alongside her.” And the Los Angeles Times dares to call Sara “as funny as David Sedaris.”

Here is a sampling from the essay “My Son Has Asthma:”

When I was ten-years-old, my six-year-old brother Sam was diagnosed with asthma. This diagnosis was the stone that built the fountain, and it was from this fountain that a neediness would spring. It wasn’t hope that sprung eternal. It was an aspiration for attention, the desire to feel special and unique.
Sam’s diagnosis wasn’t good news per se, but neither was it without its benefits. For it would gift unto my mother the eventual, guiltless employment of a maid. And also a motto:
My Son Has Asthma

Like most ineffective plans for coping, it emerged the day of diagnosis. I’d gone to visit my brother in his hospital room where he lay ensconced amidst festive pillows and Mylar balloons. My mother sat perched at his bedside massaging his scalp. The attending nurse breezed through. She fluffed Sam’s pillows and saw me sitting in the corner.

“Wow!” she said. “In that polo-shirt, you look just like Jerry O’Connell!”
It was 1989. Jerry O’Connell was not yet the strapping, chiseled husband to Rebecca Romijn, but rather the rotund child star.

The nurse departed. I said, “Mom. That nurse said I look like a boy, and that I am fat,” and my mother, still massaging, turned impatiently back toward me.
“Not now, Sara, please,” she said. “Your brother Sam has asthma.”

Sam was already buoyed by a virtual raft of gifts. He was getting a massage! He was going to be fine. This whole asthma situation looked awfully good from my vantage point and a moment or two devoted to my own problems was, I thought, a fair thing to ask.

I considered throwing a tantrum. However, my mother preempted my tantrum by suggesting a stroll down the hallway.

Sam and I agreed. Sam had energy to burn from all the ice cream he was getting. As for me, I hoped to run into a boyishly handsome nurse who would say, “Sorry to bother you, but I simply had to ask: Are you Tina Yothers? You two look exactly alike.”

Sadly, the only person we ran into in the hallway was a sickly, old man. He was balanced against a wall so he could let go of his cane and eat a Danish. He was blocking our path, and the fact of this had pissed my mother off.

“Look out!” she yelled. “Please: My son has asthma!”

The phrase became a generic exclamation, an oy vey stand-in employed to express varying emotions: Exhaustion, fear, surprise.  Disappointment, foreboding, resolve.

Here, a sampling of occasions and the uses they’d inspire:

A hot day:
“The humidity! My son has asthma!”
A long line:
“This wait! My son has asthma!”
A casual dinner with friends:
“Carol, pass the antipasto platter, please! I have a son with asthma!”
Reprinted by permission of Three Rivers Press.

Learn more about Sara and her book.